All About Ear Infections – Prevention

Ear infections are all too common and cause a lot of distress for kids and their families. What can we do to help prevent them from happening?

This is part 3 of a three-part series.

  1. All About Ear Infections – What they are and why they happen
  2. All About Ear Infections – Treatments
  3. All About Ear Infections – Prevention

 


What can be done to prevent ear infections?

Avoid all smoke exposure.

Tobacco smoke is known to predispose children to ear infections, upper respiratory infections and wheezing.

Do not bottle prop.

Keeping a baby’s head elevated a bit while bottle feeding can help prevent ear infections.

Breastfeed.

Breast milk is protective against many types of infection, including ear infections.

General infection prevention.

Avoid taking your infant to places where there are a lot of people during sick season.

Wash hands often. Teach kids to really wash their hands. Because they don’t do a great job much of the time.

Attempt to limit sharing of toys that young children mouth, and wash them between children.

If your child attends daycare, try to find one where there are fewer children per room.

Vaccinate.

One of the biggest causes of bacterial ear infections is pneumococcus. Your child will be vaccinated against this as part of the standard vaccine schedule.

Saline.

If you know me, you know I often recommend saline to the nose.

Saline drops for babies followed by suctioning.

Nasal saline rinses for kids over 2 years of age. (Nasopure has a great library to teach proper use and even videos to get kids used to the idea.)

Saline is a great way to clear the mucus from our nose, which can help prevent cough, sinus infections, and ear infections.

Keep the pacifier in the crib.

When kids play, they often drop their pacifier, which can encourage germs to accumulate on it before they put it back in their mouth.

Xylitol.

There are several studies that suggest chewing gum with xylitol as its sweetener helps prevent ear infections in children who can chew gum. For younger infants, there are nose sprays with xylitol. Xylitol is a naturally occurring substance that is used as a sweetener is many products, many of which are reviewed here. I do not endorse any of these, but do find this a helpful resource.

Treat acid reflux.

This can include dietary changes, positional changes, or medications. Talk to your doctor to see which is right for your child.

Treat allergies.

Treating allergies can help decrease mucus production and improve drainage.


For More Information:

Middle Ear Infections: Summary of the AAP ear infection guidelines
Xylitol sugar supplement for preventing middle ear infection in children up to 12 years of age

Share Quest for Health

All About Ear Infections – Treatments

Yesterday I wrote about what ear infections are, what they’re not, and what causes them. Many parents don’t care so much about the what’s and why’s – they want treatment. Now. Because ear infections hurt, and no one wants to watch their baby suffer. Today I’ll discuss treatments.

This is part 2 of a three-part series.

  1. All About Ear Infections – What they are and why they happen
  2. All About Ear Infections – Treatments
  3. All About Ear Infections – Prevention

Treatments for Ear Infections

First manage the pain

Regardless of the cause of the earache or what the ultimate fix will be, you will want to first manage pain. It does not matter if it’s a real infection or if it’s even the ears that are causing problems, if your child is in pain, treat the pain.

Oral pain relievers

Ear pain can be managed with pain relievers, whether it’s a true infection or simply pain from the congestion that comes with a cold. You can begin pain relief at home whether or not the ear infection is confirmed with standard doses of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Ear drops

Ear drops for pain work fast but the relief doesn’t last long, so I recommend also giving acetaminophen or ibuprofen per standard dosing recommendations in combination with drops. Ear drops can include both over the counter options and prescription options as long as the eardrum doesn’t have a hole or tube in it.

Do not put anything in the ear if you suspect a hole or know your child has a tube unless your doctor recommends it.

Olive oil works pretty well and most of us have that in our kitchen. Saturate a cotton ball with oil (not hot oil) and squeeze the cotton over the ear canal, putting 2-4 drops in the canal.

There are many over the counter ear drops for pain, but I find that the oil you already own is not only cheaper, but works just as well.

Prescription numbing drops are an option if your doctor thinks they are appropriate. These have been difficult to find in recent years for many factors. Be sure you’re using an approved product if you use prescription pain drops.

Positioning

If you’ve had an ear infection as an adult or watched your child refuse to sleep, you’ll know that ear infections can hurt more when lying down. Safely elevating the head can help the pain associated with the increased pressure lying down.

For young infants, elevate the head of the bed by putting risers under the legs of the bed or by wedging something under the mattress. Be sure it is stable, whichever you do. Never put an infant under 1 year of age on a pillow or other soft bedding.

For older children, propping up on several pillows is often helpful. Many toddlers and young children will not stay on pillows, so this is less effective.

Treat associated issues

When kids have ear pain, they often have a runny nose, cough, fever, and other symptoms. Each of these should be managed as discussed on previous blogs: fevergreen snotcoughgenerally sick. How long symptoms will last are discussed here.

treatment varies by age of the child and severity of the infection:

  • Pain relief for anyone with an ear infection is the first treatment. See above.
  • Monitor for the first 2-3 days without antibiotics in many instances, since most ear infections will self-resolve.
  • Antibiotics can be used if symptoms persist more than 2-3 days ~ earlier for children under 6 months of age, those with significant illness, those who had another ear infection within the past 30 days, or for those who have an increased risk of ear infection (such as immune deficiency or an atypical facial structure or chromosomal defect known to affect hearing or immune function).
  • If a child has tubes and develops an ear infection, pus will drain out of the tube. Antibiotic ear drops are the first choice for this type of infection. Antibiotics by mouth are not typically needed.
  • Prevent the next ear infection. See Part 3 tomorrow!

Why not use antibiotics for every ear infection?

Antibiotics don’t treat viruses

The large majority of ear infections are caused by a virus, for which antibiotics are ineffective. About 80% of ear infections self resolve without antibiotics.

Antibiotics can cause problems

Not only are antibiotics not needed, but they also carry risks. About 15% of kids who take antibiotics develop diarrhea or vomiting. Nearly 5% of children have an allergic reaction to antibiotics — this can be life threatening. So when you look at the benefits vs risks, you can see that most of the time antibiotics should not be used as a first treatment.

Superbugs

When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic but don’t get completely killed, they learn to avoid not being killed the next time they see that same antibiotic. This is called bacterial resistance, also known as “superbugs”.

Superbugs can be shared from one child to another, which explains why some children who have never had antibiotics before have an infection that is not easily taken care of with the first (or second) round of antibiotics and why if a child needed several different antibiotics to clear an ear infection might get better with generic amoxicillin with the next.

It’s the bacteria in the ear that become resistant, not the child. The more we use antibiotics, the more resistance builds up and the less likely antibiotics will work for serious infections.

What are tubes and how do they work?

Tympanostomy tubes are small plastic tubes that are placed in a surgically made hole in the eardrum (tympanic membrane). They keep the hole in the eardrum open so that if pus develops in the middle ear it can drain out through the tube. This helps prevent the pain caused by the pus filling the middle ear area and pushing out on the eardrum. It also helps prevent the hearing loss that happens when the eardrum can’t move due to pus behind it.

photo from USAToday (Rosenfeld RM. A Parent’s Guide to Ear Tubes. Hamilton: BC Decker Inc., 2005)

Pus behind the eardrum causes many symptoms, which may include balance problems, poor school performance, hearing difficulties, behavioral problems, ear discomfort, sleep disturbance, and/or decreased appetite with poor weight gain. The benefits of tube placement for these children must be compared to the cost and risks of anesthesia and having an opening in the eardrum.

The majority of ear infections resolve completely without complication. The longer the pus remains behind the eardrum the less likely it will go away. If the pus is there longer than 3 months, it’s less likely to resolve without treatment.


When are tubes recommended?

Since placing tubes does involve risks, they are not recommended for everyone.
Guidelines recommend the following evaluation for tubes:
  • If pus or fluid has been in the middle ear for over 3 months (OME or OM that never clears), a hearing test should be done.
  • If the hearing test is failed, tubes should be considered.
  • If fluid has been there longer than 3 months but hearing is normal, recheck the hearing every 3-6 months until the fluid clears. If the hearing test is failed on rechecks, then tubes are warranted. (I know plenty of families who opt for tubes despite normal hearing due to quality of life despite this recommendation.)
  • Children with higher risk of speech issues or hearing loss may be considered for tubes earlier. This would include children with abnormal facial structures, such as cleft palate, or certain genetic conditions that predispose to developmental delays, hearing concerns, or immune problems.
 Dr. Deborah Burton is an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) surgeon who answers common ear tube questions and discusses common tube complications in just a couple of her fantastic collection of blogs. She also gives tips on how to avoid ear infections to prevent the need for surgery!

What about recurrent ear infections?

I know parents get frustrated with recurrent ear infections, and I’ve seen many families who are happy that they got tubes for their child after recurrent ear infections, but studies show they aren’t really necessary. If each ear infection clears, that shows that the eustachian tube (the tube that drains the middle ear into the throat) can do its job. As long as the pus is there less than 3 months with each infection, the risk of tubes does not usually outweigh the benefits according to studies.
Again, quality of life can factor in here and I think that’s hard to measure in a study. If kids are missing out on sleep and not eating well due to ear pain, tubes might really help. Discuss this with your child’s doctor.

Are there kids who should be considered tube candidates earlier?

Some kids are more sensitive to the problems associated with OME. These kids might have sensory, physical, cognitive, or behavioral issues that increase his or her risk of speech, language, or learning problems from pus in the middle ear. Children with known craniofacial abnormalities or chromosomal abnormalities who are at higher risk for speech and hearing impairment will also be considered for tubes more liberally. These kids might benefit from tubes even if they don’t have pus for 3 months in the middle ear or hearing loss.

What are complications and risks of tubes?

Tube placement requires anesthesia, which is overall safe, but not without risk.
Tubes keep a hole in the eardrum, which can allow water and bacteria to get into the middle ear, leading to infection. This leads to pus draining out of the ear canal, called otorrhea. This pus can be treated with antibiotic ear drops initially, and oral antibiotics if it last more than a month.

Some ENTs recommend earplugs when kids with tubes swim, but studies do not show that they are needed in most cases. If kids get recurrent otorrhea, they might be candidates for earplugs when swimming. Kids who swim in lake water or do deep water diving might also benefit from earplugs.

NEXT UP: Prevention

So now that you know what ear infections are and how to treat them, check in tomorrow for Part 3: how to prevent them.

For More Information:

Middle Ear Infections: Summary of the AAP ear infection guidelines

Share Quest for Health

All About Ear Infections – What they are and why they happen

When babies and children have ear infections everyone in the house suffers because they cry all night and no one sleeps. They hurt. Especially at night. Parents don’t want to see their children in pain and they don’t want to see it happen again and again, so they often wonder if tubes are the answer.

This is part 1 of a three-part series.

  1. All About Ear Infections – What they are and why they happen
  2. All About Ear Infections – Treatments
  3. All About Ear Infections – Prevention

What causes ear infections and what does not?

A middle ear infection usually happens because of swelling in one or both of the eustachian tubes (which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat as pictured above). The tubes let mucus drain from the middle ear into the throat. If they are blocked, the mucus builds up in the middle ear.

Ear infections are usually caused by viruses that cause typical cough and colds. The mucus made during the infection gets into the middle ear, causing pain. Bacteria can also get into the middle ear and cause infections.

Things that increase the likelihood of an ear infection include anything that increases mucus or decreases drainage:
  • Young age
  • Swollen tonsils or adenoids
  • Acid reflux
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Allergies
Things that DO NOT increase the risk of middle ear infections:
  • Taking a bath when it’s cold
  • Getting water in the ear
  • Getting wind in the ear
  • Going outside in cold weather

Why do babies get so many ear infections?

The eustachian tube helps to equalize pressure in the middle ear. If it is swollen or blocked it does not allow the pus in the middle ear to drain (think of how the tissues in your nose swell with a cold or allergies). Infants and young children are more prone to ear infections than adults because their eustachian tube is flatter, which inhibits drainage (see picture below).

photo source: MedlinePlus

 

what an ear infection is and what it’s not

A healthy ear drum is grey and shiny and we can see the small ear bones behind it. (See eardrum on the right.)

photo source: Medscape
Otitis media

Correctly diagnosing an acute ear infection (otitis media, OM) can be more difficult than it seems.

The child must have significant pus behind a red eardrum, as in the left image above, or pus draining out of the ear canal from pressure causing a hole in the eardrum allowing pus to drain (perforated eardrum) or ear tubes.

Even with this pus and redness, it is not possible to tell if a bacteria or virus is causing the infection.

Otitis media with effusion

If there is pus behind the eardrum without redness or other symptoms, it is not an acute ear infection but rather otitis media with effusion (OME).

This fluid can range from clear to white or yellow and may accumulate in the middle ear as a result of an upper respiratory infection or a resolving acute ear infection.

Many kids have no symptoms of pain with this ear fluid but it can affect hearing. OME is often found at “well” visits during the winter months or at school hearing evaluations.

OME typically self resolves within a month or two. If it persists beyond 3 months and causes hearing loss, tubes will drain the fluid (see below). Sometimes removing the tonsils or adenoids are recommended, since removal might help the eustachian tube drain the middle ear.

Decongestants and other medicines have not been found to help OME. OME can get mistaken for an ear infection if the child is crying during an exam, which reddens the eardrum.

Red ears

Many kids cry when being examined, and the eardrum can turn red just from crying (just like their face and ears turn red when they’re mad).

We often see this when kids are in the office for upper respiratory tract infections. School nurses will sometimes send kids in to check on red ears.

This is not an ear infection unless there’s also pus.

It’s just a crying kid. Or a child with a fever and red ears.

Many less experienced (or just busy) clinicians call it an ear infection even if there’s no pus so they can quickly write a prescription and move on to the next patient. Parents are happy “knowing” that there’s an ear infection (that’s not real) and that they can do something about it. This is incorrect on several levels. There must be pus involved. It’s easy to over diagnose an ear infection if you’re just looking at the color of the eardrum.

Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear is a different type of infection entirely because it involves the skin of the ear canal, not the middle ear, and is covered in-depth in Swimmer’s Ear.

Ears and eyes

When babies have pink eye I always want to look at their ears before treating the eyes. This is why I don’t recommend getting antibiotic eye drops by phone for young kids. Ears and eyes often become infected together and the ears should be treated in addition to the eyes, and the eye drops do nothing for the ears. I’ve seen plenty of kids over the years who have no ear symptoms with their ear infections – they just get red matted eyes, with or without fever.


Are ear infections that rupture the eardrum more serious?

I’ve had several parents worry that their child had a hole in the eardrum allowing pus to drain out. They automatically think this child is at higher risk of ear problems and should get tubes. This isn’t exactly the case.

Many factors can lead to ear drum perforation (or rupture). In general, when the eardrum perforates, a hole allows the pus to drain (much like tubes), which allows for faster healing of the infection and pain. This does not necessarily mean the child is prone to ear infections or needs tubes.

In days before antibiotics, a treatment for ear infections was to put a needle into the eardrum to draw the pus out. This helped relieve pain and was very effective to clear the infection.

I find that many kids who have eardrum ruptures feel better faster than those who don’t. Occasionally the hole lasts for years and it becomes recommended to patch it closed, but typically the hole closes up very quickly — sometimes too quickly before the infection is cleared and pus re-accumulates behind the eardrum.

Next up: Treatments

So now that you know what ear infections are, check in tomorrow for Part 2: how to treat ear infections.

Until then, you can check out these 7 Ear Infection Facts Every Mother Should Know from Dr. Deborah Burton, an ENT with a fantastic blog.

For More Information:

Middle Ear Infections: Summary of the AAP ear infection guidelines



Share Quest for Health

Flu Season Fears: What should you do?

Headlines are making everyone nervous about this year’s flu season. Schools are closing due to high flu numbers. Parents are worried that their child will be the next that dies.

Yes, the risk is real.

But there are things to do.

First: Prevent

Vaccinate

Vaccines are the one of the best inventions to prolong our lives. They really can help. I know the flu vaccine (or any vaccine) isn’t 100% effective, but it does help. Everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu shot.

I’ve heard from many pediatricians taking care of kids hospitalized with influenza, and none of the dying kids were vaccinated.

Kids who were vaccinated this season might get flu symptoms, but generally not as severe.

It does take 2 weeks for the vaccine to be effective, so get it ASAP. Kids under 9 years old who haven’t been vaccinated for flu previously will need 2 doses a month apart. Call around to see where you can get it.

If your kids (or you) are scared of shots, check out these tips.

Not convinced? Check out these 10 Reasons to Get the Flu Vaccine.

Wash hands

Wash hands often. This goes without saying. Whatever you touch stays on your hands. When you bring your hands to your face, the germs get into your body. Teach kids to wash hands well too!

Cover!
cough, cold, urgent care, primary care, medical home
Cover your cough!

Teach kids to cover their cough (and sneeze) with their elbow. This collects most of the germs in the elbow. Hands touch other things, so if you cover with your hands, you need to wash them before touching anything.

The only time I don’t recommend the elbow trick is if you’re holding a baby. Their head is in your elbow, so you should use your hands to cover and wash often!

You can get masks at the pharmacy to cover your nose and mouth to protect yourself from catching something and to prevent spreading an illness you have. We have masks available for anyone who comes to our office. We ask those who are sick to wear them, but those who are well can also put them on to prevent catching something!

In my office you’ll see that most of our nurses and clinicians have opted to wear masks when seeing sick kids even though we all have had our flu vaccine!

Avoid the T-zone

Avoid touching your face. It’s a horrible habit that most of us have. Be conscious of how often you wipe your mouth, eyes, or nose. Those are the portals to our body. Avoid touching them unless you can wash your hands before and after. Show kids how the eyes, nose and mouth make a “T” and teach them to not touch their T-zone.

Stay home when sick.

I’ve heard many angry complaints from parents about exposures. One mother was sick because she was exposed at work and then her illness spread to her family. She was especially upset because the exposure was from a child of a co-worker who brought the child to work because the child was sick and couldn’t go to school.

Keep sick kids home. If you’re sick: stay home.

If you’re sick with a flu-like illnesss, don’t
  • run to the store.
  • send your child to school with ibuprofen.
  • go to work.
  • go to your child’s game.

Stay home unless you need to seek medical attention.

Tamiflu and other anti-virals

My office is getting inundated with phone calls requesting us to call out Tamiflu. In some instances it’s appropriate for us to prescribe it for prophylaxis, but often we want to see your child first. If your child has flu-like symptoms, I do not want to prescribe a treatment without first evaluating your child. I don’t want to miss a more serious case that needs to be hospitalized. I don’t want to treat bronchiolitis or another condition as flu and miss the proper treatment. More on treatment with Tamiflu below.

Prophylactic uses

Tamiflu can be used for prophylaxis after exposure, but don’t rely on it. (If you follow my blog, you know I’m not a Tamiflu fan.)

Newborns

Some of the calls we are getting are from mothers with influenza who have newborns and their OB’s have recommended prophylaxis for the baby. If the baby is under 3 months of age, Tamiflu is not approved for prophylaxis. (See the chart and corresponding footnotes from the CDC below.) If you are sick, try these tips to prevent spreading illness to your kids.

Community exposures

Many calls are from parents worried about a classroom (or other) exposure in a child who is not high risk. Unfortunately we cannot and should not use Tamiflu for routine exposures. Tamiflu itself is not without risk and if overused it will not be available for people who might really need it.

Big event coming soon!

A big birthday party, a big test, a planned vacation, etc do not make your child high risk. We really shouldn’t use Tamiflu inappropriately just because flu will make life inconvenient. Remember that all treatments have potential side effects and if we use them indiscriminately they will not be available when really needed.

Tamiflu prophylaxis is recommended for high risk people who have known exposure.

High risk includes:

  • children under 2 years of age
  • adults over 65 years of age
  • persons with chronic lung (including asthma), heart (except hypertension alone), kidney, liver, hematologic (including sickle cell disease), metabolic disorders (including diabetes mellitus) or neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions (including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle, such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy [seizure disorders], stroke, intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury)
  • persons with immunosuppression, including that caused by medications or by HIV infection
  • women who are pregnant or postpartum (within 2 weeks after delivery)
  • under 19 years of age receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • American Indians/Alaska Natives
  • persons who are morbidly obese
  • residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities

Prophylactic and treatment options are summarized in this table from the CDC:

Antiviral Medications Recommended for Treatment and Chemoprophylaxis of Influenza
Antiviral Medications Recommended for Treatment and Chemoprophylaxis of Influenza

Finding Tamiflu

Right now it’s hard to find Tamiflu in many parts of the country, so you might not be able to get it after you’re exposed (or even if you’re sick with flu).

What’s better than Tamiflu?

Flu season can last through April, so taking it for 10 days now won’t help in 2 weeks when you’re exposed again. The flu vaccine protects more effectively and for a longer duration!

If sick: Treat

Most flu symptoms can be treated at home.
Fever and pain reducers

Use age and weight appropriate pain and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen to keep kids comfortable. It is not necessary to bring the temperature to normal – the goal is to keep them comfortable. Don’t fear the fever – it is the immune system hard at work!

Offer plenty of fluids

Infants should continue their breastmilk or formula as tolerated. Older kids can drink water and it’s okay for them to eat. There is no need to avoid foods if a child wants to eat – I don’t know where the “feed a fever starve a cold” or other common myths started. Of course, appetite is usually down during illness, so don’t push foods. Push fluids.

Saline and suction

Saline and suction can go a long way to help relieve nasal congestion. Noisy breathing isn’t necessarily bad, but if the breathing is labored that’s another story. Check out the Sounds of Coughing to learn how to identify various breathing problems.

Cough medicine?

Pediatricians don’t recommend cough medicines due to high risk of side effects. Kids over a year of age can use honey. Some kids can get relief from menthol products. I’ve previously written all about cough medicines if you want to read more.

Natural treatments?

A lot of parents want to do natural treatments. Learn which have been shown to work and which haven’t.

For more…

For more on treating symptoms, visit my office website’s tips.

when not to go to the doctor

Not every person with influenza needs to be seen by a medical provider. I know we’re all scared, but in most cases there isn’t much doctors and other healthcare professionals can do to help.

Medical offices, urgent care clinics and ERs are overwhelmed with mildly sick people, which makes it harder for those who are really sick to be seen.

If your child is low risk (anyone who doesn’t meet the high risk criteria above) and is drinking well, overall comfortable with support measures, and doesn’t have any breathing distress, you can manage at home. Certainly if the situation changes, bring him in, but coming in before any signs of distress will not “ward off” the development of those symptoms.

When you should bring your child to be evaluated

If you think your child might have another illness, such as Strep throat, ear infection or wheezing, bring him in for evaluation and treatment.

When any signs of distress are noticed in your child: bring him in.

If your child is high risk (as described above) and has sick symptoms, he should be seen to determine if Tamiflu is appropriate. I do not recommend getting Tamiflu called in if a child is symptomatic. A child should have an exam to be sure there aren’t complications before just starting Tamiflu. I’ve seen several kids whose parents thought they had flu, but their exam and labs showed otherwise. They could be properly treated for Strep throat, ear infections, or pneumonias instead of taking Tamiflu inappropriately after an evaluation.

How can you tell if it’s the flu or another upper respiratory tract infection?

I have seen many kids who are brought in with a runny nose just to see if it’s early flu. No. No it’s not. Flu hits like a tsunami: fever/chills, cough, body aches, and fatigue. But the child was playing in the waiting room full of kids who do have flu, so you might recognize flu symptoms soon.

cold vs flu
From the CDC: How to tell if it’s a cold or the flu?

If your low-risk child had the flu vaccine, they may still get influenza disease. But if it’s mild, they can be treated at home. If symptoms worsen, they should be seen. Yes, there is a benefit to starting Tamiflu early, but we shouldn’t use it for low risk people who aren’t significantly sick. Even if you come in early, Tamiflu probably won’t be recommended if your child doesn’t meet criteria. Tamiflu has some significant side effects and is in short supply. We shouldn’t overuse it.

Flu testing

We currently have the ability to do a rapid flu test in the office, but there is a national shortage of the test supplies, so we might choose to not test your child if they don’t meet high risk criteria. I know at least one local hospital is out of rapid test kits and we probably won’t be able to get more this season if we run out.

Don’t come to the office or go to an urgent care or emergency room just to be tested.

Please don’t be upset if we do not test your child, especially if your child is not high risk and we wouldn’t recommend Tamiflu if they are positive.

If your child has classic flu symptoms, the guidelines don’t rely on test results for treatment, so if your child meets criteria for treatment, we can prescribe without a positive test.

Knowing test results doesn’t really help guide treatment when we have such high numbers of flu in the community. It does help early in the season to recognize when flu is coming to town, but we know it’s here. Pretty much everywhere in the US, it’s here.

Let’s work on stopping the spread.

Be healthy!


Share Quest for Health

 

How long will a cough or cold last?

How long will a cough or cold last?

I get this question all the time.

Most people want it gone now. (Or more likely, last week.)

Unfortunately despite our medical advancements over the years, we still have no cure for colds and coughs. Viruses do not get killed by antibiotics, and most colds and coughs are caused by viruses.

cough and colds last weeksI don’t hold back on advice when I see kids with disturbing colds and coughs. I sympathize with the child and parents. I’ve been there: both as a person with a bad cold and as a parent watching my kids struggle with colds. But I still can’t make them better faster.

We have our standard instructions:

  • Fluids (water)
  • Rest
  • Saline washes to the nose
  • Blow the mucus out. If a child’s too young to blow his nose well, parents can suck the snot right out.
  • Honey for children over 12 months of age
  • Prop the head up during sleep
  • Prevent spread
But then we still have the original question: How long will a cough or cold last?
One of my favorite graphs depicting the timeline of a typical upper respiratory infection is from research done in the 1960’s, but since we don’t have any better treatment now than we did back then, I find it to hold true to what I experience when I get a cold and what I see in the office.
how long will cold and flu symptoms last
Days of Illness

Notice how the symptoms are most severe during the first 1-5 days, but still persist for at least 14 days. And at 14 days 20% of people still have a cough, 10% still have a runny nose. And the lines aren’t going down fast at that point, they both seem to linger.

A more recent review of medical studies showed that the many symptoms of illness linger for much longer than parents want to accept. From this study:
earache, sore throat, croup, bronchiolitis, cough, common cold
* Earache range 7-8 days, Sore throat 2-7 days

Bear in mind that children tend to get about 8 colds per year, often in the fall/winter months, so a second virus might start developing symptoms right as the first cold is finally going away.

There’s an important distinction between back to back illnesses versus a sinus infection requiring antibiotics. This is why doctors and nurses ask (and re-ask) about symptoms. The history and timeline of symptoms are very important in a proper diagnosis.

It isn’t the color of the mucus (really!) We don’t want people to unnecessarily take antibiotics. That leads to bacterial resistance, side effects of medicine, and increased cost to families.

So if you’re struggling with cough and cold symptoms in your house, follow these instructions.

To help determine when your child needs to be seen:

Urgently or emergently:

If your child is breathing more than 60 times in a minute, ribs are going in and out with breaths, or the belly is sucking in and out with each breath, your child needs to be seen in the office, at urgent care or an ER (preferably one that specializes in children), depending on time of day and your location. Another complication that kids must be seen for is dehydration. Dehydration may be present when the child is unable to take in enough fluids to make urine at least 4 times a day for infants, twice a day for older children.

Routine office visits:

If your child has ear pain, trouble sleeping, or general fussiness but is otherwise breathing comfortably and well hydrated, he should be seen during regular office hours. If the cold is worsening after 10-14 days, bring your child in during regular office hours.

To help determine where your child should be seen, check out my old blogs on What to do After Hours and Urgent Cares for Routine Illnesses.

More reading:

Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Acute Bacterial Sinusitis in Children Aged 1 to 18 Years

Share Quest for Health

Help Us Help You! Make the most out of phone calls

Hello.  This is Dr. Stuppy.  I’m returning your call about…

That’s how my phone calls start, then they take various turns. Some are easy, some not so easy. I’d like to discuss what makes a phone call to the doctor’s office more productive, so we can help you better.

All examples are entirely fictitious, made up of 18 + years of phone call experiences.

Many calls start off like this:

Hi. This is Mary Sue. My son has a rash and I want to know what to do.

Me: ?????

I must ask many questions for more information.

Some callers don’t seem to know what to say, so they only answer direct questions.  How old is your son? When did the rash start? What does it look like? Has it changed? Does it itch or hurt? Any other symptoms? What have you used to treat it? Did that help? Has he had any new ingestions, lotions, or creams? Does he have a history of allergies? Anyone else with a rash that looks like this?

On and on…

Other calls start like this:

Hi.  Thanks for calling back. My son Jack is 3 years old. Well, really his birthday isn’t until next month, but he’s almost 3. He has had a fever for 2 days, maybe 3 days because he felt warm but he wasn’t acting funny or sick that first day he felt warm so I didn’t check his temperature. He actually was fussy last week, but I don’t think he ever had a fever then. I was thinking maybe he didn’t sleep well last week, but I don’t know why. I took his temperature and it was 100.3, that was on Tuesday around 7am. I gave Tylenol, and it went down to 97.9, but then 4 hours later it was back up to 99.7….

My thoughts so far: Get to the point.

Sorry, but that’s true. I care about my patients, but so far this phone call has taken me quite a bit of time and I really know nothing except this almost 3 year old has an elevated temperature (not even a true fever). I don’t even know what the parent’s main concern is.

just the facts, MA’AM.

When parents call, they need to summarize with pertinent facts. While they shouldn’t leave out important helpful information, they don’t need to mention every time they took a temperature.

Much like the evening news: they can’t do a play by play of every football game. There’s no time and it serves no purpose. A few highlights of the game and the score. That works well. People get a pretty good idea of how the game went.

It’s the same thing with phone calls to your doctor’s office or on call provider.  We have thousands of patients. Not all call, but during peak cold and flu season, there are many calls all day and night. The phone nurse or on call provider simply can’t spend 15 minutes chatting about every detail. That’s for your friend and you to discuss over coffee.

During the cold and flu season, it’s not uncommon for me to be on the phone with one parent when another call comes in. This is at the same time I’m trying get groceries or do other things I need to do for my family on evenings and weekends. (Being on call after hours doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work during the day.) I really don’t want to sit and chat. I don’t have time for play by play action. Again, I really care about my patients, but I can do a better job at answering your questions if you are clear and concise. 

Things that help us help you:

Know what’s going on.

When a parent calls and the child is at daycare or grandma’s so the caller doesn’t know details, we can’t really help. Yes, parents have called for advice when they’re on their way to daycare but don’t know any more than the child has to be picked up due to a symptom such as vomiting, fever or pink eye.

See your child first or have the person with the child call us. When you pick up the child, ask for details of their day. Learn how they ate/drank, how they acted, etc.

Sometimes you’ve been up several nights in a row with a sick child and things get jumbled in your head. It happens.

Write down the pertinent facts to get them straight if you need to.

Start with your child’s full name and birth date.

I can’t tell you how often parents jump right into their worries without stating who their child is. This is important not only for chart documentation of the call but also so we know how old your child is.

Include any significant past history, such as your infant was born at 28 weeks gestation, or your coughing 3 year old has a history of wheezing.

Give pertinent facts related to the concern.

If your child has a fever, give the number of days of fever, the maximum temperature, and how it was taken.

If you have given a fever reducer, share that.

Find a quiet place to talk.

When my kids were little they always wanted to be held when they were sick. I get it.

If you’re on the phone and they’re crying in your arms, it’s very hard to have a conversation.

Please find a safe place for your child to rest while we talk if possible.

If they won’t leave you or stay quiet, have another adult talk to us after they’ve been briefed about all the symptoms.

Summarize symptoms and treatments.

Briefly describe symptoms and what you have done to help them as well as how your child responded to the treatment.

Mention All treatments

If you use a vaporizer or saline for a cold, or have stopped dairy and used gatorade for vomiting, let us know. If you use a traditional home remedy, please let us know.

Let us know any medications your child typically takes in addition to ones you have tried for the current symptoms.

Signs and symptoms can be tricky to describe

When there’s a rash, it’s typically best for us to see it, but if you call about a rash describe it in terms of location, color, and size. Many find it helpful to relate to common objects, such as quarter-sized.

Note if there is a pattern to the symptoms, such as headache every day after school or barky cough only at night.

Summarize, don’t tell a novel

Leave out details that don’t help. Trends and generalizations work well.

If we want more details, we can always ask.

Avoid words that could be interpreted other ways, use facts.

Commonly misused words are “lethargic” and “fever.”

Lethargy in a medical sense is ominous. Many parents use it when their child is only mildly ill and tired. Describe what you’re seeing instead. Saying “Johnny won’t even wake enough to drink or hold his cup,” gives me the thought he is lethargic. Saying “Johnny wants to sit on my lap and read books instead of playing with his sister,” shows that he’s not well, but definitely not lethargic.

Fever is a temperature over 100.4 F. Many parents use the word fever if their child feels warm to touch. It’s more clear if you state that they’re warm to touch or what the thermometer says and how you took it.


Examples of good call starters:

Start with name, birth date, summary

I’m calling about Joe Smith, birth date 9.12.08. He has had a fever for 3 days, up to 101.3 under the arm. It comes down with ibuprofen, but is right back up in 6 hours. He also has sore throat and headache. He’s drinking well but not eating much for 3 days.

I know this child’s name, age, pattern of fever and associated symptoms. The only thing I need now is the parent’s concern – so far they’ve been doing everything right. What made them call today? What’s their question?

Describe

Sally Smith, birth date 9.12.17, has vomited 6 times in the past 12 hours. If I give formula it immediately comes up. She is now dry heaving and hasn’t had a wet diaper in 12 hours. She doesn’t have a fever but looks tired and it is hard to wake her to drink. She doesn’t have diarrhea. Her older brother had the stomach flu a few days ago but is now better.

Again, I know the child’s name and age and main problem – especially the fact that she sounds dehydrated. The parent didn’t use this word, but described dehydration (no wet diaper in 12 hours and it’s hard to wake her to drink). 

Include pertinent history

John Smith, birth date 9.12.17, was in the NICU for 2 months due to prematurity. He has been fussy all day and is now breathing fast and hard and is not able to drink more than a few sucks at a time. He doesn’t have a fever, but I’m really worried.

Here I know the child’s age and that he was significantly premature – a big risk factor. He’s distressed because he can’t feed. Note: I made this baby not have a fever on purpose. He’s sick even without a fever. 

Getting More Information

Knowing where to get reliable information is important. There’s a lot of bad advice online. Fancy websites aren’t always reliable.

Sites I recommend:

The AAP has many resources on HealthyChildren.

KidsHealth is another great resource.

My office’s website, PediatricPartnersKC, also has many pearls of wisdom. Often when we give advice it’s already stated on our site. Parents sometimes call multiple times because they can’t remember what we said. This is frustrating on both ends of the phone. We wrote it down and made it easily available for a reason. Use our site! (For patients in other practices, check out your own pediatrician’s site.)

Things that cannot be done by on call providers – at least not well:

Prior authorization for an ER or urgent care visit that is already done.

Prior authorizations are not usually needed, but if they are required, we should talk to you to be sure the visit is necessary before you go.

If I didn’t send you to the ER, I can’t fill out paperwork saying I did. That’s lying and using my license inappropriately. Often I would have chosen another location or given home care instructions to get you through the night.

Of course if you do talk to me (or one of my partners) overnight and we do send you to an urgent care or ER, we are happy to fill out forms if needed by insurance.

“Allow” you to leave a busy ER.

It sounds silly, but I have had many calls from the waiting room at ER/Urgent Cares with parents asking if I think it okay that they leave due to a long wait. If you thought it necessary to go in the first place, I would be open to a malpractice lawsuit if I told you to go home without being seen.

You should ask their triage nurse who can make that assessment.

Refill medications.

I typically expect that your child is seen prior to most prescription refills for best medical care. If it’s urgent that your child have a refill, such as an inhaler, they should be seen to evaluate the concern.

There are exceptions to every rule, but don’t be upset if the on call provider or phone nurse refuses to call out a prescription.

This is in the best interest of your child, not to be difficult. It’s easier to just call in the script than it is to argue this point, believe me. But easier isn’t better care, and that’s what’s important.

Make a diagnosis.

We cannot see the ear, listen to the lungs, or feel the belly over the phone. A physical exam and sometimes labs or radiology studies are needed to make a diagnosis. If your doctor claims to be able to diagnose by phone to call out prescriptions, I would suggest that they’re not doing the best of care.

An example of a poor diagnosis by phone:

Just this week another child was seen in my office for a sore throat that wasn’t better on the amoxicillin prescribed by a telemedicine doctor through their insurance company. The exam clearly showed blisters on the child’s throat. The sore throat was from these blisters, which are from a virus, not a bacteria.

The antibiotic was never needed. In this case the child simply didn’t get better as expected with a presumed case of Strep throat, but fortunately she didn’t get diarrhea or have an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. Who knows if this contributed to more bacterial resistance and superbugs?

Not only did the family waste money on an unnecessary treatment, they also exposed their child to a treatment that could have caused harm.

I worry with the increasing use of telehealth that we will see more problems related to improper diagnoses and delay of proper diagnoses – some of which could be significant.

Swallowed poisons or medicine / drug overdose.

The United States has a great poison control system. They can give rapid advice that most doctors don’t have easily available.

Call (800) 222-1222 if you suspect your child has ingested something. PUT THIS NUMBER IN YOUR PHONE RIGHT NOW.

A visit’s better than a phone call for:  

Difficulty breathing.

If a child is having difficulty breathing and you don’t have treatments at home that work, he needs to be seen as soon as possible.

Dehydration.

An infant who hasn’t urinated in 6-8 hours or an older child who hasn’t urinated in 12 hours might be dehydrated and should be seen as soon as possible.

Some fevers.

Temperature above 100.4 F in an infant under 3 months or in an under immunized child can be serious and should be seen as soon as possible.

Fevers lasting more than 3-5 days or with other concerning symptoms require an evaluation.

Fevers are scary and can make kids miserable. There is no “magic” temperature that we worry about more. Look at how your child is acting, not the thermometer, to determine if they are sick. Not every child with a fever needs to even be treated. There is benefit to letting the fever do its job!

Uncontrollable pain.

If you’ve used standard pain relievers and your child is still hurting, we cannot do anything by phone that will improve the situation. A careful exam might find a treatable cause of pain.

Most rashes.

Though these don’t necessarily need to be seen emergently unless there are other concerns, rashes cannot be evaluated on the phone and a physical exam is needed.

If your child is otherwise well appearing, treat the symptoms of the rash.

If he’s otherwise sick and you’re concerned, then he should be seen.

Chronic problems.

If your child has been dealing with anything for more than a few days, it might help to schedule a visit with your usual provider. This is especially true if it relates to a chronic condition, such as asthma, constipation, or other issue.

Many parents deal with a problem for months (or years) but have NEVER been in to discuss it specifically. They might mention it at another visit as an aside, but we never really talk about it in depth and give it the attention it deserves.

Diagnosis vs information.

If you want a diagnosis, we need to see your child.  We cannot tell if the ear is infected or if your child has Strep based on symptoms alone.

If you want advice of what to do with symptoms, we can generally give advice. Remember that the websites above can be helpful with this type of information too!

Behavior problems.

These are best discussed with your usual provider, not an on-call provider who doesn’t know your child. Most of these build up over time and are not emergent issues.

If it is an emergent issue, such as a child is in physical danger due to his actions or if a child is threatening another person, call 911.

If your child is suicidal, call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Injuries.

If your child has a significant injury, they often require prompt evaluation. Call 911 before calling your doctor’s office if your child is seriously injured.

Lacerations must be repaired as soon as possible, so don’t wait until office hours the next day if there’s a gaping wound!

Minor bumps and bruises can be handled at home, but if you’re not sure, give us a call to discuss what happened.

Help me help you!

Let me know what else you need to know to be an educated caller.

I’d be happy to answer questions about when to call, what to ask, and what to expect.

If I left any questions unanswered, please ask!


Share Quest for Health

Cough until you puke

This is the time of year it seems everyone’s coughing. I’ve heard from more than one worried parent that their child coughs to the point of vomiting. In the medical world, we call this post-tussive emesis.

Post = after, tussive = cough, emesis = vomit

Kids tend to have a very active gag reflex, so they sometimes gag themselves and vomit with cough. This can be good, since it gets the mucus out of the back of the throat. You can try to teach older kids to hack and spit it out, cough and spit it out, gargle with salt water, and rinse mucus out of the nose.

Of course it’s not fun to vomit after coughing because everything in the stomach comes up and makes a huge mess. Sometimes the vomit comes out of the nose, which can burn from the stomach acid. And vomiting can be very scary to kids.

Are there serious concerns when kids vomit from coughing?

Yes.

In medical school I learned that when kids cough to the point of vomiting we should consider whooping cough, pneumonia and asthma.

In reality I find that many kids with regular cough and colds can gag from cough, but I always consider the more serious options.

What should I do if my child vomits from a cough?

First, keep your cool.

If a parent starts to get flustered, it makes the child more worried, which never helps.

Make sure your child’s breathing is okay.

Obviously he is coughing, but between coughs if the breathing rate is too fast or labored, he should be evaluated ASAP.

Rinse.

Rinse out your child’s mouth (and nose if needed- saline drops or rinses work well for this). Vomit is just nasty tasting and can burn in the nose.

Treat the cough.

If your child has asthma, give a breathing treatment or their rescue inhaler.

If your child is over a year of age, you can use honey to help a cough. A teaspoon usually does the trick.

Humidify the air with a vaporizer or humidifier.

For more treatments see Cough Medicine: Which one’s best.

When should my child be seen?

If your infant is under a year of age or your child has not had the whooping cough vaccines (Dtap in infants and young kids and Tdap in tweens), he should be evaluated. Some babies with whooping cough stop breathing so many are hospitalized to monitor for complications.

After a single episode of vomiting if your child’s breathing is comfortable, just continue to manage at home.

If your child develops difficulty breathing or dehydration, he should be seen as soon as possible, ideally at a location that routinely cares for children.

If your child continues to vomit after coughing but is comfortable between episodes and is well hydrated, he should be seen during normal business hours at his regular doctor’s office.

Share Quest for Health

The flu shot doesn’t work

I’ve seen a few kids this season who have influenza despite the fact that they had the vaccine. When the family hears that the flu test is positive (or that symptoms are consistent with influenza and testing isn’t done), they often say they won’t do the flu shot again because it didn’t work.

flu shot ineffectiveHow do they know it isn’t working?

Influenza can be deadly.

Most of the kids I’ve seen with flu who have had the shot aren’t that sick. Yes, they have a fever and cough. They aren’t well.

But they’re not in the hospital.

They’re not dying.

They tend to get better faster than those who have unvaccinated influenza.

Some kids still get very sick with influenza despite the vaccine.

That’s why there’s surveillance to see how it’s working.

When FluMist was determined to not be effective, it was removed from the market.

Studies are underway to make a new type of flu vaccine that should be more effective.

We know the shot isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Maybe if you weren’t vaccinated you’d be a lot sicker.

Maybe you were exposed to another strain of flu and didn’t get sick at all.

I think it’s still worth it to get vaccinated each year (until they come up with a vaccine that lasts several seasons).

If everyone who’s eligible gets vaccinated against the flu, herd immunity kicks in and it doesn’t spread as easily. Historically only around 40% of people are vaccinated each year against influenza. We know that to get herd immunity we need much higher numbers.

Shot fears…

If your kids are scared of shots, check out Vaccines Don’t Have to Hurt As Much As Some Fear.

Don’t rely on Tamiflu to treat flu symptoms once you’ve gotten sick.

Tamiflu really isn’t that great of a treatment. It hasn’t been shown to decrease hospitalization or complication rates. It shortens the course by about a day. It has side effects and can be expensive. During flu outbreaks it can be hard to find.

Prevention’s the best medicine.

Learn 12 TIMELY TIPS FOR COLD AND FLU VIRUS PREVENTION.

Share Quest for Health

Fever: How High is Too High?

Despite having fever information on our website and blogging about it many times, including here and here and here, parents often call in or bring their child in with excessive concern for fevers. (Note: paracetamol is the same as acetaminophen and Tylenol in the linked article.)

The information here is only for infants and children over 3 months who are otherwise healthy and vaccinated. If those criteria are not met, the child is in a higher risk category.

Fever is one of the biggest anxiety inducers in parents, and I want that to change. Yes, we should care for our children when they’re sick, but we don’t need to worry about the numbers on the thermometer.

Maybe one time I’ll explain fever in a way that hits home so parents can stop focusing on the number and more on the child. Parents often tell us in detail what the temperatures are at various points of the day but omit how the child looks and acts. I care more about the child’s behaviors than the thermometer’s reading.

I know fever is scary. Kids are miserable. But the temperature itself is not what we treat. Treat the symptoms!

What is a fever?

The number on the thermometer can be confusing to parents. How the temperature is taken is as important as the number itself to determine if it is a fever. A fever is often defined as a temperature over 100.4 °F (38 °C) but it can vary based on how you take the temperature (rectal vs oral vs forehead). This is simply the minimum temperature that is no longer considered normal.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend treating fevers until the temperature is over 102°F unless the child is uncomfortable. Thermometers are not very accurate, so when you worry more about a temperature that is half of a degree higher than another temperature, it might not be a significant difference. You could take the temperature twice in a row and get different readings. If your child is playful and the thermometer reads 101.5°F that is a very different story than if your child is barely moving, whimpering, and breathing fast with a temperature of 101.5°F. I wouldn’t recommend any fever reducers for the first, but I would recommend the second get evaluated by a pediatrician or other medical provider.

Why do we care about fevers?

I think medical professionals help to foster this fear of fevers because we ask about them. It can be helpful to know the actual temperature because many kids are warm but not really running a fever.

  • We are more contagious during a fever, which is why schools and daycares won’t let kids stay if they have a fever.
  • The height of the fever doesn’t indicate if the child has an infection requiring antibiotics or not, but it can cause increasing discomfort as it rises above 102°F.
  • The height of a fever itself does not cause fever seizures, but a rapid change in temperature can cause a seizure in a child that is susceptible to them.
  • If a true fever lasts more than 3-5 days or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, the child should be seen to look for a source.

So how high is too high?

Fevers higher than 106°F (41°C) might be the answer parents are asking for when they want to know what temperature is too high. It is at this point that brain damage from the temperature itself can occur due to hyperpyrexia (heat stroke). This is not common from a simple infection and other symptoms will be present, such as change in consciousness, vomiting, flushed skin, headache, rapid breathing, and very rapid heart rate. Emergent medical attention and cooling the body is important with hyperpyrexia, which differs from fever.

If your child does not appear very ill and the thermometer reads very high, it’s likely the thermometer is in error.

What if the temperature doesn’t go down to normal after using a fever reducer?

When parents give a fever reducer, they often worry that the temperature doesn’t go back to normal. Returning to normal doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious infection and not returning to normal doesn’t mean that it is a serious infection. Studies show the temperature tends to decrease by 1.8 to 3.6°F.

  • Acetaminophen begins to work in 30 – 60 minutes and has its peak effect in 3-4 hours. The duration of action is 4-6 hours.
  • Ibuprofen begins to work in under 60 minutes and has its peak effect in 3-4 hours. The duration of action is 6-8 hours.

The goal should be to make a child more comfortable, not to get the temperature to normal.

My personal opinion is that most children won’t need their temperature taken to verify that they are better after a fever reducer. They should be more comfortable. If they aren’t, then it’s wise to have them evaluated professionally.



Share Quest for Health

Cough Medicines: Which One’s Best?

I get a lot of requests for an over the counter cough suppressant suggestion or a prescription cough medicine for kids so they can sleep. Despite my attempts at educating the family about why I don’t recommend any cough medicines, many parents are upset leaving without a medicine.

I have collected numerous articles that show why I treat cough the way I do. Links are included throughout this blog. Click away to learn more!

First, a little background

Most cough medicines were studied in adults and the dosing for kids was calculated from the adult dosage.

Kids are not small adults. Their bodies handle illness and metabolize drugs differently.

But few studies have been done to show if medicines work at all, and if they do, what the best dose is for kids of various ages and sizes.

In 2008 the FDA stated that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines.

Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6 because of the risks without benefit.

Despite this, studies show that 60% of parents of children under 2 years have given a cough and cold medicine. Why? In my opinion, they are desperate to help their child and don’t think it is enough risk to not at least try.

Of course I would never recommend giving a child a spoonful of pills.

I know it’s frustrating when your child is up all night coughing. It’s frustrating when my kids and I are up all night coughing.

do you know what we do in my house?

  • Humidify the air of the bedroom (during the dry months)
  • Extra water to drink all day
  • Honey before bedtime in an herbal tea (No honey before 1 year of age!)
  • Encourage cough during the day to help clear the airways
  • Nasal rinse with saline (I love this, but my family is not so keen on it)
  • Sleep with water next to the bed to sip on all night long
  • Back rubs, hugs, kisses, & reminders that it will get better
  • Nap during the day as needed to catch up on lost sleep
  • Watch for signs of wheezing or distress

That’s about it for the cough.

If something hurts, we use a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. We use those only if something hurts, not just because and not for fever without discomfort.

Why don’t I give my family cough medicines?

Because they don’t work.

The OTC options:

Cochrane Review in 2007 was done to look at over the counter cough medicine effectiveness in both children and adults. These reviews look at many studies and analyze the data. Unfortunately there are very few studies, and many were of poor quality because they relied on patient report. In studies that included children, they found:

  • Antitussives were no more effective than placebo for kids. (one study) In adults codeine was no more effective than placebo. Two studies showed a benefit to dextromethorphan, but another study did not, so mixed results.
  • Expectorants had NO studies done in children. In adults guaifenesin compared to placebo did not show a statistically different response. 
  • Mucolytics more effective than placebo from day 4-10 in kids. (one study) In adults cough frequency was decreased on days 4 and 8 of the cough. (Note: I am not sure what OTC mucolytic was studied. I am only aware of pulmozyme and mucomyst, both used by prescription in children with cystic fibrosis.)
  • Antihistamine-decongestant combinations offered no benefit over placebo. (2 studies) One of two studies showed benefit in adults. The other did not.
  • Antihistamine shows no benefit over placebo. (one study) In adults antihistamines did not help either.

Another Cochrane Review in 2012 once again failed to show any real benefits of cough medicines, especially given the risks of side effects.

What about some specific studies on OTC medicines?

I cannot report them all here, but here’s a few:

study comparing dextromethorphan (the DM in many cough medicines), diphenhydramine (AKA Benadryl), and placebo in 2004 showed no difference in effectiveness of controlling cough for sleep. That means the placebo worked just as well as the medicines. Insomnia was more common in those who got dextromethorphan.

Does guaifenesin help? It is thought to thin mucus to help clear the airways. It does not stop the cough. Studies vary in effectiveness and are typically done in adults, but it may be helpful in children over 4 years of age. Do not use combination cough medicines though, for all the reasons above.

In 2007 honey was shown to be a more effective treatment than dextromethorphan or no treatment. Another study in 2012 showed benefit with 2 tsp of honey 30 minutes before bedtime. A side effect of honey? Cavities… Be sure to brush teeth after the honey!

What side effects and other problems are there from over the counter cough medicines?

As stated above, the dosages for children were extrapolated from studies in adults. Children metabolize differently, so the appropriate dosage is not known for children. Taking too much cold medicine can produce dangerous side effects, including shallow breathing and death.

Many cough medicines have more than one active ingredient. This can increase the risk of overdosing. It also contributes to excess medicines given for problems that are not present. For instance if there is a pain reliever plus cough suppressant, your child gets both medicines even if he only has pain or a cough. Always choose medicines with one active ingredient.

Accidentally giving a child a too much medicine can be easy to do. Parents might use two different brands of medicine at the same time, not realizing they contain the same ingredients. Or they can measure incorrectly with a spoon or due to a darkened room. Or one parent forgets to say when the medicine was given and the other parent gives another dose too soon.

And then there’s non-accidental overdose. There is significant abuse potential: One in 20 teens has used over the counter cough medicines to get high. Another great reason to keep them out of the house!

Side effects of cough medicines include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Impaired physical coordination
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness of fingers and toes
  • Disorientation
  • Death, especially in children under 2 years of age and those with too high of a dose

What about prescription cough suppressants?

In 1993 a study comparing dextromethorphan or codeine to placebo showed that neither was better than the placebo. Codeine belongs to a class of medications called opiate analgesics and to a class of medications called antitussives. When codeine is used to reduce coughing, it works by decreasing the activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing. It can make breathing too shallow in children. Codeine has several serious side effects which could be life threatening in children. Combination products with codeine and promethazine (AKA phenergan with codeine) should never be used in children.

The FDA has recommended against the use of cough medicines with codeine or hydrocodone for children for years, but just this month strengthened its position. New labels will now state that they aren’t for use in children under 18 years of age. The label will also warn about misuse adults and list the serious side effects and risks of these opioids.

In my opinion, why use it in older children and adults since it hasn’t been shown to work and we know there are risks?

What about antibiotics for the cough?

I’ve enjoyed following Dr. Christina Johns on Twitter for a lot of great advice like this!

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial causes of cough (such as some pneumonia or sinusitis) but antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which cause most coughs.

If your child has a cold, antibiotics won’t help.

Antibiotics won’t make the cough go away faster unless there is bacterial pneumonia.

They won’t prevent the cough from getting worse.

They carry risks.

In summary: over the counter and prescription cough suppressants and antibiotics shouldn’t be used for most coughs.