Antibiotic Allergy or Just a Rash?

During the winter months more people get sick, so more people are treated with antibiotics. While antibiotics can help treat bacterial infections, they do carry risks. One of those risks is an allergic reaction. This is one of the reasons pediatricians avoid using antibiotics liberally. Most of the time our bodies can fight off the germs that cause illness and antibiotics don’t help treat viruses at all. How do you know if it’s an antibiotic allergy or just a rash?

Rashes are common

When someone is on a medicine and they develop a rash it can sometimes be hard to sort out if symptoms are part of the illness, a non-allergic drug reaction, or an allergic reaction.

There are many people who had a rash while taking an antibiotic as a child and were told that they are allergic to that antibiotic, but really aren’t. Unfortunately this can lead to more expensive and broader-range antibiotics being used inappropriately and unnecessarily.

Drug rash

About 2% of prescription medications (not just antibiotics) cause a “drug rash”. The rash usually begins after being on the medicine for over a week (earlier if there was previous exposure to the medicine), and sometimes even after stopping the medicine.

It can look different in different people.

Some get pink splotchy areas that whiten (blanch) with touch.

Others get target-like spots, called Erythema Multiforme.

Often the rash seems to worsen before it improves, whether or not the medicine is stopped.

Skin can peel in later stages.

It can itch but doesn’t have to.

Some people have mild fever with these symptoms.

Adults vs kids

In adults this type of rash is often a sign of allergic reaction, but in kids a rash is most often a viral rash – meaning they have a virus that causes a rash but they happen to be on an antibiotic (or other medicine).

This is why diagnosing allergy versus drug reaction is tricky.

These symptoms can mean allergy to the drug, but (especially in kids) is often just a symptom of a virus (or some bacteria, such as Strep or Mycoplasma).

Penicillin

Up to 10% of children taking a penicillin antibiotic (which includes the commonly used amoxicillin and augmentin) develop a rash starting on day 7 of the treatment. (It can be earlier in people who have had the antibiotic previously.) This rash tends to start on the trunk, looks like pink splotches that can grow and darken before fading. It does not involve difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or airway, or severe itching.

Because of this reaction many people live their life thinking they have an allergy to penicillin, even though many of them don’t.
amoxicillin rash
Amoxicillin rash 3 hours after the 17th dose. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAmoxicillin_rash_3_hours_after_17th_dose.JPG
amoxicillin rash
Amoxicillin rash 11 hours after the 17th dose of amoxicillin. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAmoxicillin_rash_11_hours_after_17th_dose.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does this happen?

We don’t know for sure. But it can cause a very significant rash, especially with the virus that causes mono.

Up to 80 -90 % of people who have mono develop a rash if they are treated with a penicillin antibiotic (like amoxicillin).

This is common since symptoms of Strep throat and mono are very similar, and penicillins are the drug of choice for Strep throat. Some people with mono have a false positive test for Strep throat, meaning they do not have Strep but the test is positive.

This is why it is very important for the medical clinician to take a careful history of symptoms and do an exam, even with “classic” Strep symptoms. (If I had a dollar for every parent who says the symptoms are just like all her kids when they get Strep, can’t I just call it in…) Always be sure to get a Strep test and full exam to evaluate if it is really Strep or possibly mono. Blood tests for mono can be ordered if clinically indicated.

Never treat a sore throat without a full evaluation.

Amoxicillin rash that developed several days after starting amoxicillin with mono. Image from Ónodi-Nagy et al. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 2015 11:1   doi:10.1186/1710-1492-11-1

How do we know if it’s a real allergy?

Doctors will take a careful history of all symptoms of the illness, the timing of when the rash developed during the illness and when the medicine was given.

If it is a classic viral rash, nothing further needs to be done. If there are symptoms (see below) that help identify a true allergy and make a clear diagnosis, then avoidance of that medication should be done.

Be sure all your doctors and pharmacists know of this allergy.

If it is not clear then further evaluation can be done. Allergists can do skin testing to see if there is a penicillin allergy, but most antibiotics do not have testing available so an oral challenge (in a controlled setting) is used if there were no clear allergy symptoms with a rash.

Mild to moderate allergic reactions can have the following symptoms:
  • Hives (raised, extremely itchy spots that come and go over a period of hours)
  • Tissue swelling under the skin, often around the face (also known as angioedema)
  • Trouble breathing, coughing, and wheezing
Anaphylaxis is a more serious allergic reaction and can include:
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Swelling of the face, tongue, throat, lips, and airway
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Shock
  • Death

Final Take Away

As you can see, rashes that develop while on medications can be quite a conundrum. If one develops, be sure to get in touch with your doctor.

We usually cannot diagnose rashes over the phone, so an appointment may be necessary.

Improper use of antibiotics: Don’t take the risk!

Improper use of antibiotics is a problem on many levels. It’s easy to get the wrong prescription for an illness if it is improperly diagnosed or if the healthcare provider is trying to keep a patient happy. By taking an antibiotic that isn’t necessary, we increase the problem of Superbugs and even put our own health at risk.

Risks of improper use of antibiotics

Improper use of antibiotics increases risk unnecessarily. Use antibiotics wisely.
Improper use of antibiotics increases risk unnecessarily. Use antibiotics wisely.

Not only is an antibiotic NOT needed for viral illnesses, but taking them when not needed can increase problems.

Risks of antibiotics involve diarrhea, yeast infections, allergic reactions, and more.

Every time we take an antibiotic, we assume the risks associated with the antibiotic. If we have a significant bacterial infection, the risk is warranted. But if we have an infection that the antibiotic will not kill, it is an unnecessary risk.

Dr. Oglesby has a great series on antibiotics, covering general facts on antibiotics (such as how they work), how resistance spreads, and when antibiotics may be needed.

Superbugs

Most of us have heard of superbugs, but there is a misconception about how they work.

Using antibiotics inappropriately can allow bacteria to learn to evade the antibiotic, which makes it ineffective. This means that new antibiotics need to be used to treat infections, which increases the time of illness, the cost of treatment, and the risk of untreatable illnesses. Some bacteria develop resistance to all known treatments, which can lead to death.

“The Last time amoxicillin didn’t work and we had to use something else. Can we use that one again?”

A lot of parents think that if one antibiotic failed with a previous infection, they need a different one. This is not true.

The bacteria develop resistance to an antibiotic. Bacteria can share their genetic material with other bacteria, leading to the quick spread of resistance.

Even someone who has never used an antibiotic can be infected with a resistant bacteria, which makes it harder to treat their infection.

Unfortunately, without a bacterial culture it is impossible to know what the best antibiotic is for any specific infection. We use the type of infection and the bacterial resistance pattern of the area to make the best choice.

It’s not the person that becomes immune to an antibiotic

Very often parents request a different antibiotic because “amoxicillin never works for my family.”

A person does not become immune to a type of antibiotic.

Start with an antibiotic that has a narrow coverage usually

A first line antibiotic is an antibiotic that covers the type of infection that is present, but isn’t so broad that it includes more bacteria than needed. It can also be called narrow-spectrum.

One infection with a superbug might require a strong antibiotic, but the next bacterial infection in the same person might respond well to a first-line treatment, such as amoxicillin.

It’s always wise to start with the first line antibiotic for the type of infection unless a person’s allergic to that antibiotic. It doesn’t matter if it worked the last time or not.

Broad spectrum antibiotics are needed for some serious infections

Remember that broad-spectrum antibiotics that have great killing power can increase the risk of killing the good bacteria that your body needs.

If you have a serious infection, they might be needed. In this case the benefit outweighs the risk.

Each new infection is a new bacteria.

The type of infection will determine the most likely bacteria. A culture from the infection (if possible) will specify exactly what bacteria is the cause and which antibiotics will work.

First line antibiotics are chosen based on type of infection as well as local resistance patterns. Upper respiratory tract bacterial infections tend to use different antibiotics than urinary tract infections or skin infections because different bacteria cause different types of infections.

Allergic reaction

Most people can tolerate antibiotics, but allergic reactions can be serious. It’s not worth the risk if the antibiotic isn’t needed in the first place.

Many people think they’re allergic to an antibiotic when they’re not.

Talk to your doctor about any drug allergies you suspect your child has and why.

Diarrhea

Many kids will get loose stools when they take antibiotics.

Probiotics can help re-establish a healthy amount of good bacteria in the gut and slow the diarrhea most of the time.

Unfortunately there is a type of bacteria commonly called C. diff that can overpopulate after antibiotics and cause severe diarrhea. C. diff causes thousands of deaths every year in adults and children, most often following antibiotic use.

If diarrhea develops during or after antibiotic use, talk to your doctor’s office during regular office hours for advice. If there are signs of dehydration, severe pain, blood in stools, or other concerns you should have your child seen quickly.

Gut flora

Antibiotics kill not only the bacteria causing an infection, but also the “good” bacteria (gut flora) in our bodies.

Our bodies are a habitat for healthy bacteria and yeast. I know this seems unnatural or unhealthy to many people, but we need these bacteria and yeast in a healthy balance.

Gut flora is made of many types of healthy bacteria. These bacteria help us with many functions, such as digestion and weight regulation. Good bacteria make products that lower inflammation in the intestines. They also make neurotransmitters which affect our mood.

Different “good” bacteria can be affected depending on which antibiotic is used.

Yeast infections

As mentioned above, our bodies are an ecosystem of bacteria and yeast. When bacteria are killed off with an antibiotic, it throws off the balance and allows the yeast to overgrow.

Yeast keeps the digestive system healthy and helps our immune system. It can help our body absorb vitamins and minerals from food. Despite what you read online, yeast are very beneficial to us – as long as they remain in healthy balance.

There are a lot of people selling products to treat overgrowth of yeast, which is said to cause all kinds of problems. These types of overgrowth are not recognized as true overgrowth by most physicians, but there are true yeast infections.

Yeast can cause infections of your skin (ringworm), feet (athlete’s foot), mouth (thrush), and penis or vagina (yeast infection). At risk people can develop blood infections with yeast. These can be life threatening. Serious yeast infections tend to occur in diabetics, immunocompromised people and those who were treated with antibiotics.

If you suspect a yeast infection, talk to your physician.

Risk vs benefit

When antibiotics are needed to fight a bacterial infection, it is worth the risk of taking the antibiotic.

The balance flips if you have a common cold – don’t take the risk for something that isn’t needed or beneficial.

Antibiotics do not and will not help treat a cold. Ever.

Don’t try to use an antibiotic to prevent a cold from developing into something else.

Improper use of an antibiotic simply has too many risks and will not help, so there is no benefit.

Prevention is key!

If you’re not sick, you don’t even think about looking for an easy fix for a viral illness.

Use proper handwashing, vaccinate against vaccine preventable diseases, and stay home when sick!

 

Spring is here and it brought the pollen! Control allergies and enjoy the outdoors.

Spring is a beautiful time of year. The flowers bloom, the birds chirp… it’s like we’re all awakening after a long, cold winter. But with the flowers (and birds) comes pollen. And with pollen comes allergies. I don’t want anyone to be afraid to enjoy the beautiful outdoors, so learn to control allergies.

Why treat allergies?

I often hear parents say that they don’t want to give their kids medicine to treat allergies because, well, it’s medicine. They prefer to be natural and the symptoms don’t seem “that bad”.

Before you decide if the symptoms require treatment or not, be sure to recognize all the potential consequences of allergies. It’s not just a runny nose and sneezing.

Allergies can impair sleep (leading to all the problems associated with not enough sleep) in addition to the annoying symptoms of itching, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes.

Some kids get a crease across their nose from wiping – AKA the “allergic salute”.

Others get purple circles under their eyes called allergic shiners.

For people with asthma, allergies are a known trigger. It’s especially important that people with wheezing tendencies keep up on allergy prevention and treatments.

Some will chronically mouth breathe, which can affect the growth and development of their jaw, lead to bad breath, and increase the risk of cavities. Dr. Deborah Burton, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, discusses these and other consequences of mouth breathing in one of her DrMommaSays blogs.

How do you know it’s allergies?

Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don't treat them.
Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don’t treat them.

Allergies can cause runny nose, headache, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, itching eyes, sore throat, itchy throat, and itchy skin. Not all symptoms need to be present.

An upper respiratory tract infection (AKA common cold) can also cause a runny nose, headache, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, and sore throat. The difference is the cold symptoms tend to not last as long as allergies. There also could be a fever, body aches, and a general feeling of “not well” with viral infections.

Seasonal allergies tend to follow a seasonal pattern, so they can be easier to recognize than allergies to indoor allergens.

These days it’s easy to track pollen counts online. If you realize that every day the counts for one type of tree or grass is elevated you have symptoms, that’s strong support that you’re allergic to that plant.

Of course, it’s possible to get a cold on top of your allergies, which adds to the confusion sometimes.

Treatments to control allergies

It is best to treat before the symptoms get bad. Treatments include not only medicines, but also limiting exposure.

Use what you can to prevent and treat allergies, which most often means using more than one of the following treatments.

Limiting Exposure:  

Limiting exposure can help decrease symptoms.

Avoid Bringing allergens into the Home

Remove clothing and shoes that have pollen on them when entering the house to keep pollen off the couch, beds, and carpet.

Keep the windows closed. Sorry to those who love the “fresh air” in the house. For those who suffer from allergies, this is just too much exposure!

Beloved pets cause unique issues

If someone’s allergic to animals or suffers from year long symptoms, learn if your family pet is a problem.

When you have pets that go outdoors and then into the home, bathe them regularly.

Don’t let pets on the couch or beds and keep them out of the bedrooms of allergic sufferers.

If you know a family member is allergic to an animal, don’t get a new pet of this type!

If you already have a loved pet someone in the home, consider allergy shots against this type of animal. Talk to your pediatrician and consider a trip to an allergist.

Wash and clean

Wash towels and sheets weekly in hot water.

Vacuum and dust weekly. Consider cleaning home vents. Consider hard flooring in bedrooms instead of carpeting.

Wash stuffed animals and other toys regularly and discourage allergic children from sleeping with them.

There are many types of air filters that have varying benefits and costs. For information on air filters see the Environmental Protection Agency’s interactive page on indoor air quality.

Smoke is a “no”

Keep smoke away. Smoke is an airway irritant and can exacerbate allergy symptoms.

Remember that the smoke dust remaining on hair, clothing, upholstery, and other surfaces can cause problems too, so kids can be affected even if you don’t smoke near them.

And for those of you who vape, it’s not better. We’re still learning the risks  of e-cigarettes because vaping is relatively new, but early data supports staying away from e-cigs!

Wash it off of you!

Wash hair, eyelashes, and nose after exposures — especially before sleep. They all trap allergens and increase the time your body reacts to them.

Learning to rinse your nose

I have found the information and videos in Nasopure.com‘s library to be very helpful. You can teach kids as young as 2 years to wash their noses. Note: I have no financial ties to Nasopure… I just love the product and website!

I am an Amazon Affiliate member, so if you buy from this Amazon link, I do get a small percentage.

If you wear contacts

If itchy eyes are a problem for contact lens wearers, a break from the contacts may help. Talk with your eye doctor if eye symptoms cause problems with your contacts.

Medications

I don’t want kids with outdoor allergies to be afraid to go outside, so taking medicines to keep the symptoms at bay while out can help.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines work to block histamine in the body. Histamine causes the symptoms of allergies, so an antihistamine can help stop the symptoms.

Some people respond well to one antihistamine but not others, so sometimes you must use trial and error to find the right one.

In general I prefer the 12-24 hour antihistamines simply because it’s very difficult to cover well with a medicine that only lasts 4-6 hours, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and they’re less sedating. Long acting antihistamines include loratadine -Claritin (24 hour), fexofenadine- Allegra (12 hour for kids, 24 hour for teens and adults), and cetirizine- Zyrtec (24 hour).

Different antihistamines work better for some than others. Personally loratadine does nothing for me, fexofenadine is okay, but cetirizine is best. I have seen many patients with opposite benefits. You will have to do a trial period of a medicine to see which works best.

If they make your child sleepy, giving antihistamines at bedtime instead of the morning might help.

Prescription antihistamines are available, but usually an over the counter type works just as well and is less expensive. Insurance companies rarely cover the cost of antihistamines these days.

Antihistamine and decongestant combinations

Antihistamine and decongestant combinations are available but are not usually recommended. Decongestants can cause dizziness, heart flutters, dry mouth, and sleep problems, so use them sparingly and only in children over 4 years of age.

Once control of the mucus is achieved, a decongestant isn’t needed. Giving a medicine that isn’t needed just increases the risk without increasing the benefit.

If you need a decongestant initially, you can use one with your usual antihistamine.

Most decongestants on the shelves are ineffective. If you ask the pharmacist for pseudoephedrine, it is available behind the counter. It was replaced by phenylephrine years ago due to concerns of methamphetamine production, but works a little better than phenylephrine.

Decongestants do NOT fix a cold, they only dry up some of the mucus.

Nasal spray steroids and antihistamines

Nasal spray steroids and antihistamines are available over the counter or as a prescription. An office visit to discuss the value of these for your child and proper use is recommended.

Nasal steroids are often the preferred treatment based on effectiveness and tolerability.

If your child resists nose sprays

You can help your kids get used to nasal sprays with saline sprays. Saline is simply salt water, so it is okay to let your kids practice with these without risking any overdose of medication.

Eye Drops

Eye drops can help alleviate eye symptoms.

They are available both as over the counter allergy drops and as prescription allergy eye drops. If over the counter drops fail, make an appointment to discuss if a prescription might help better. Most insurance companies don’t cover prescription allergy eye drops well, so you might want to check your formulary before asking for a prescription. This is usually available on your insurance website after you log in.

If your child resists eye drops

Tips to administer eye drops include washing hands before using eye drops, put the drop on the corner of the closed eye (nose side) and then have the child open his eyes to allow the drop to enter the eye.

Montelukast

Singulair (Montelukast) works to stop histamine from being released into the body.

It helps control both allergies and asthma and is best taken in the evening.

Once a person has been on montelukast for a couple of weeks, they usually don’t need an antihistamine any longer.

Montelukast is available only by prescription, so make an appointment to discuss this if your child might benefit.

Steroids

Steroids decrease allergic inflammation well. These include both oral steroids for severe reactions (such as poison ivy on the face or an asthma attack) and inhaled corticosteroids for the nose (or lungs in asthma).

The nasal steroids are discussed above and are highly recommended for kids and adults who tolerate putting a spray in their nose.

Other steroids require a prescription, so a visit to your provider is recommended to discuss proper use.

What if all of the above isn’t helping to control allergies?

Maybe it’s really not allergies.

There are many things that can seem to be allergies but aren’t. If proper treatment is not working, reconsider the diagnosis.

It’s possible that the allergy treatment is working, but you caught a cold on top of the allergies. Both are common, so they can occur together.

Allergies to things other than foods are rare before 2 years of age. If you’re treating allergies in an infant or toddler, be sure to keep your pediatrician in the loop.

I’ve known people who are treated for years by an allergist for allergies, but when they’re tested due to a poor response, they have no allergies. They might have frequent infections or other irritants like smoke exposure. Learn to control these issues too, starting with good hand washing, avoid touching your face, and avoiding smoke.

Allergy testing

Allergy testing is possible by blood or skin prick testing, but can be costly. Not to mention the fact that kids tend to not like needles, which are used with most testing.

Allergy testing isn’t recommended for most allergy sufferers. It can be used to guide allergy immunotherapy, which involves routine allergy shots. Most suffers don’t need allergy shots, but if you think your child would benefit (and allow them), talk to your doctor.

In most cases I don’t find test results very helpful for environmental allergens because you can’t avoid them entirely. You can limit exposures as discussed above, regardless of test results.

Tracking patterns and symptoms to identify allergies

By tracking seasonal patterns over a few years can identify many of the allergens. You can still treat as needed during this time. Reports of pollen and mold counts are found on Pollen.com.

Rather than testing, note animal exposures and household conditions and any symptoms seen with exposures.

Write symptoms and exposures weekly (or daily). It often doesn’t take long to see patterns. Testing is important if allergy shots are being considered.

Need help tracking allergy symptoms? There’s an app for that! Here’s one review I found of allergy apps. I don’t have any personal experience of any, so please put your favorite in the comments below to help others!

Wrong medicine or wrong dose.

Some people have more severe allergies and need more than one treatment. I personally use eye drops, nasal spray, and an oral antihistamine in addition to nasal washes and daily (sometimes twice daily) showers when my allergies flare.

Switching types of medication or adding another type of medicine might help. If you need help deciding which medicines are best for your child, schedule an office visit with your PCP for an exam and discussion of symptoms.

Some kids outgrow a dose and simply need a higher dose of medicine as they grow. Talk to your pharmacist or physician to decide if a higher dose is indicated.

Is Nothing working?

Consider allergy shots (immunotherapy) to desensitize against allergens if symptoms persist despite your best efforts as above.

Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to discuss if this is an option for your allergy sufferer.

Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don't treat them.
Learn to diagnose allergies, what to do when you have them and what you risk if you don’t treat them.



Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold! There’s no quick fix

We all have been sick and wish for a magic cure. Sometimes it seems we find the right fix, but it was just coincidental. I see many people who want antibiotics to fix a viral illness because “it always works” but I want to try to show why this isn’t usually the case. Using antibiotics for most colds and coughs isn’t necessary and can lead to problems.

My urgent care experience

This blog is generally about pediatric health, but sometimes the principles are similar in adult medicine, so I’m sharing a personal story.

I was visiting my parents out of town and came down with fever, chills, and a sore throat. Due to the fatigue and shaking chills, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to drive the 4 hour trip home the following day. I decided to go to a walk in clinic to see if there was a treatment to help get me on my feet again.

Although it’s less common for adults to get Strep throat, I wanted to have my throat swabbed because I had been exposed to just about everything at work.

If it was just a viral illness, fine. I’d tough through it with fluids and a fever reducer for the body-shaking uncomfortable chills.

But a child had gagged and coughed in my face earlier that week when I was doing a throat swab – and he had Strep. If I had Strep (as I hoped), then an antibiotic would treat the cause and I’d be back in shape in no time.

I could technically call out an antibiotic for myself, but I didn’t want to do that. That is poor care and I would never recommend treating anyone with a prescription without a proper evaluation.

I followed my own advice and went to a walk in clinic since I was out of town. If I was at home, I would have gone to my primary care physician because I believe in the medical home.

The provider walked into the exam room looking at the nurse’s notes saying it sounded like I had a sinus infection. (I use the term provider because I don’t recall if he was a physician, NP, or PA.)

What?

He hadn’t even examined me or gotten any history from me other than answers to the cursory questions the nurse asked. Not to mention that my symptoms had just started within the past 24 hours and didn’t include any form of nasal congestion or drainage.

I’m a physician and know that sinusitis must have persistent symptoms for much longer than 24 hours. But I kept that thought to myself for the moment.

He did a quick exam and started writing a script to treat my sudden onset of fever without cough/congestion.

He literally started writing the script as he was telling me, once again, that I had a sinus infection.

Now I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.

antibiotics are not a quick fix for virusesI said I really just wanted a throat swab to see if it was Strep. I didn’t want an antibiotic if it wasn’t Strep throat.

He argued for a bit about the validity of rapid Strep testing.

I argued that I did not meet the criteria for a sinus infection and that the rapid strep tests are indeed fairly reliable (not perfect).

As a pediatrician I won that argument easily. In the end I was swabbed.

The test was negative. I most likely didn’t have Strep throat after all.

He still gave me a prescription for a commonly used antibiotic called a Z-pack, which I threw away.

avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics are not a quick fix for viruses and carry risks.

Did I get better?

I felt better the next day, so if I had just taken the z-pack, I would have thought it worked.

Ironically, the Z-pack is not a very good antibiotic against Strep, the one reason I would have taken an antibiotic. Resistance rates are high in my area, so unless a person has other antibiotic allergies (which I do not) I would not choose it for Strep throat.

But my body fought off an unnamed virus all by itself. That’s what our immune system does. Pretty cool, right?

No. Not cool.

Well, yes… it is cool that we can get better with the help of our immune system and no antibiotics. But not cool that a less knowledgeable person would have taken the prescription without question.

Unfortunately, I think many people trust the medical care provider, even when he or she is wrong.  Even smart people don’t know how to diagnose and treat illnesses unless they’re experienced in healthcare, so anyone could be fooled. Especially since we’re vulnerable when we’re sick. Even more so when our kids are sick. We want to do anything to help them.

False security in an unnecessary treatment.

Many parents come into my clinic wanting an antibiotic for their child because the child has the same symptoms as they have and they’ve been diagnosed with a sinus infection, bronchitis, or whatever. They’re on an antibiotic and are getting better, so they presume their child needs the same.

Most of the time they both likely have a viral illness, and the natural progression is to get better without antibiotics, but it’s hard to get buy in to that when a parent’s worried about a child. Even harder when the parent is certain that their antibiotic is fixing their viral illness.

Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.

A false belief is reinforced when we think we get better due to an antibiotic. It doesn’t prove that the antibiotic worked, but our minds perceive it as such.

We want to believe something works, and when it appears to work, it affirms our false belief.

The wrong treatment plan.

In my example, not only did I not have a sinus infection, but if I did have a false negative Strep test and actually needed an antibiotic for Strep, the Z-pack wasn’t a good choice.

False negative tests mean that there is a disease, but the test failed to show it. False negative tests are the reason I usually do a back up throat culture if I really think it is Strep throat and not a virus.

If the wrong treatment is given, not only do you fail to treat the real cause, but you also take the risks associated with the treatment for no reason.

Doesn’t the doctor (or NP or PA) know the antibiotic won’t work?

Yes, they know (or should know) how antibiotics work and when they’re indicated. But unfortunately, there are other factors at work when quick fixes are chosen.

Top 3 reasons that lead to patients getting unnecessary prescriptions:

1. Time

One problem is that it’s much easier to give a prescription rather than taking time trying to teach why a prescription isn’t needed.

The faster they see a patient, the more patients they can see and the shorter the waiting time is, which makes people happy.

I see many unhappy parents who follow up with me because their child is still sick and the “last doctor” did nothing. I have previously blogged about the Evolution of Illness so will not go into it in depth here.

2. Experience

Sometimes it’s hard for physicians, NPs, and PAs to not try something to make a sick person better. After all, that’s why we do what we do, right? We want to help. We’ve all heard of patients who get progressively ill because an infection wasn’t treated quickly and we don’t want to “miss” something.

While missing a significant illness can happen, it’s not common. Common is common. Most upper respiratory tract infections are viral. It’s knowing how to recognize worrisome symptoms that comes from experience.

Physicians (MD, DO)

Physicians spend years of not only classroom training, but also clinical training to learn to recognize warning signs of illness. Even a brand new physician has at least 2 clinical years during the total 4 years of medical school. Then they spend at least 3 years of residency seeing patients in a supervised capacity before they can work independently. That’s at least 5 years of 60-80 hour work weeks.

The physicians in my office, including myself – now 18 years in practice – still ask for help if we feel it could be beneficial. Sometimes a second set of eyes or putting our heads together helps to put things into a clearer picture.

Trust that if we say it’s a virus, it’s a virus. We know that bodies can still be significantly sick if it’s Just A Virus, but most of the time you can manage symptoms at home. Listen to what we say are warning signs that indicate your child should be reassessed. Bring your child back if symptoms worsen or continue longer than typical. Symptoms can worsen, but taking an antibiotic does not prevent that progression in most cases.

Be sure to question if you do not understand or agree with an assessment or treatment plan, as I did in my example above. It is essential to have this type of communication for the best care.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs)

I love the NPs in my office. They do a fantastic job and make patient access easier. They see a lot of sick kids and do a great job treating when needed and giving “just” advice when that is what is needed. (That’s usually harder, trust me.)

They are always able ask questions if they don’t know what to do or for a physician to see a patient if a parent wants a second opinion.

I do not want this to become an argument if NPs and PAs are good. They are needed in our healthcare system to help patients get seen in a timely fashion. I welcome and appreciate them as part of the healthcare team.

But I do want to acknowledge that the training and background can vary widely, and I think it’s important to know the experience of your provider. It is not as regulated to become an NP or PA as it is to become a physician.

Many NPs have years of work experience before returning to school to get their advanced degree. But newer online programs do not require much clinical experience. At all.

If they then begin working independently without much supervision, they learn as they go and may or may not learn well. I’m not saying they’re not smart, but I also know how lost I felt those first months as a new physician after many supervised hours, and I know they have a small fraction of those supervised hours. I can’t imagine doing that as a new grad!

This is why I think that all new practitioners should work with others who have more experience, so they can learn from the experience of others. I worry when inexperienced people work alone in clinics, with no one to bounce questions off of.

Learn more about the training of healthcare providers in What kind of doctor is your doctor?

Patient experience and the 6th sense as a parent

Experience as a parent (and patient) matters too.

We can’t see what your child experienced last night if we’re seeing them in the morning and symptoms changed. Many symptoms are worse overnight, which makes it difficult to assess during the day. Of course if symptoms are urgent at night, go to a 24 hour facility that can adequately evaluate the situation.

If you are able to wait until regular business hours, you must describe it so we can understand it.

If you feel uncomfortable with the treatment plan, talk to the provider. List your concerns and let them address them. That’s not the same thing as demanding a prescription or further testing. It means asking for more information about why they feel the current plan is the correct one.

3. Surveys

Many hospitals, clinics and insurance companies are surveying patients to see if “good care” was provided. These surveys are used to place providers on insurance contracts and decide payment and salaries.

People are happier and think care is better if something was done. A lab, x-ray, or prescription (whether needed or not) is “something” people can identify.

People do not feel that information about viral illnesses and what treatments can be done at home is as worthwhile as a tangible treatment, even if it’s the correct treatment. They see the prescription as making the cost and time taken for the office visit “worth it” even if it is bad care. Leaving empty handed (but with proper treatment) doesn’t satisfy.

And the surveys reflect that.

Sadly, the pressure felt by physicians and other medical providers to perform well on surveys has been shown to have many negative side effects. Healthcare costs rise from unnecessary tests and treatments. Side effects of unnecessary treatments occur. Hospitalization rates and death are even higher with high patient satisfaction scores.

Don’t look for a quick fix. Look for the right fix.

Antibiotics certainly have their place. They are very beneficial when used properly. For a fun read about being responsible with antibiotics, visit RESPECT ANTIBIOTICS: USE THEM JUDICIOUSLY TO ENSURE WE CAN STILL WAGE THE WAR AGAINST BACTERIA from Dr. Michelle Ramírez.

If we use antibiotics inappropriately, they cause more problems.



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Measles Outbreaks: What can you do to protect your family?

Any area can be affected by measles. My county is in the middle of an measles outbreak right now. This is despite relatively high MMR vaccine rates above 95% for at least 1 MMR by 3 years of age. There are a lot of questions about measles outbreaks, so I thought I’d tackle a few. Like most pediatricians, I’ve never seen measles and I hope to not miss it if I do. We all need to be aware of its symptoms so we can recognize it when we see it!

What is measles?

Measles is a viral illness that includes fever, cough, fatigue, red eyes, and a characteristic rash. The rash spreads from head to trunk to lower extremities.

Measles rash PHIL 4497 lores
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMeasles_rash_PHIL_4497_lores.jpg

RougeoleDP
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARougeoleDP.jpg
Measles is usually a mild or moderately severe illness. It can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, and even death (risk of 2-3 per 1000).

One rare complication of measles infection that occurs many years after the illness appears to resolve is subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). It is a fatal disease of the central nervous system that usually develops 7–10 years after infection.

 

 

 

Koplik spots, measles 6111 lores
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKoplik_spots%2C_measles_6111_lores.jpg
Koplik spots are a specific rash seen in the inner cheek. Koplik spots are visible from 1 – 2 days before the measles rash and disappears to 1 – 2 days later. They look like white spots with a blue center on the bright red background of the cheek. They can easily be missed because they are not present for long, but if seen are classic for measles.

What is the timeline of symptoms after exposure?

Measles is highly infectious. It is primarily transmitted by large respiratory droplets in the air, so handwashing doesn’t help prevent exposure.

An area remains at risk for up to 2 hours after a person with measles was there. This is why it is IMPERATIVE that you should not leave your house if you suspect you have measles until you have spoken with the health department or your physician. DO NOT go to a walk in clinic or your doctor’s office unannounced. You will need to make arrangements to meet someone outside and wear a mask into the building. You will be put in a special negative pressure room, which is not available in most clinics.

More than 90% of susceptible people develop measles when they’re exposed.

The average incubation period for measles is 11–12 days. It takes 7–21 days for the rash to show. It is due to this long time for the characteristic rash that susceptible people who were exposed are put in isolation for up to 21 days.

Most people are contagious from about 4 days before they show the rash until 4 days after the rash develops. If a person has measles and the rash resolves, they can leave isolation when cleared by their physician and/or the health department.

What is a measles outbreak?

Measles outbreaks are defined as 3 or more measles cases linked in time and space.

How do outbreaks start?

I know the big question on everyone’s mind during an outbreak is, “Where did it start?”

Often an unimmunized traveler brings the measles virus into the US. Countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific continue to have outbreaks. Travelers who visit those countries can return to the US and share the virus for a few days before symptoms are recognized. Anyone who was in the same area as an infected person for up to 2 hours after that person left the area could be exposed.

In case you’ve heard that vaccines can lead to outbreaks: that’s not the case. Measles shedding from the MMR does not cause disease.

What happens during an outbreak?

Measles Outbreaks: What can you do to protect your family?During an identified outbreak of any reportable infectious disease, the health department directs what to do. They attempt to identify and notify all people who are at risk.

Our current outbreak involves several infants from the same unnamed daycare in addition to people not associated with the daycare. I know many families are worried that their child was at that daycare. Families at that daycare will have been notified by the health department already. The health department will track all known contacts of those families.

Local health departments also will notify the public of known locations of potential contact with the virus. The above linked article lists the known locations that infected people visited during their contagious period.

Why are infants at risk?

Infants are at particular risk because they are not typically vaccinated against measles until 1 year of age.

When the virus is in a setting with infants, such as a daycare, it can easily spread.

Infants under 2 years of age who are infected also tend to have more complications from the disease than older children and adults. This is one of the biggest reasons to not wait until 2 years to start immunizations, as some anti-vaccine groups suggest.

If you think you were exposed to or have symptoms of measles

It is IMPERATIVE that you should not leave your house if you suspect you have measles until you have spoken with the health department or your physician.

DO NOT go to a walk in clinic or your doctor’s office unannounced.

You will need to make arrangements to meet someone outside and wear a mask into the building. You will be put in a special negative pressure room, which is not available in most clinics.

Do not go to the pharmacy to pick up medications. Don’t go to the grocery store for food.

Do not leave your home unless it is to a medical facility that knows you’re coming and is prepared.

(Yes, I know I repeated myself for much of this section, but it’s that important!)

The MMR vaccine can help stop the spread

The MMR vaccine is recommended routinely at 12-15 months and again at 4-6 years of age. Vaccines not only help the vaccinated, but provide herd immunity to those too young to be immunized and to those who are immunocompromised.

Please be sure your family is up to date on all their vaccines. All children over 1 year of age should have at least 1 MMR vaccine. All school aged children and adults should have 2 MMRs. By vaccinating your family, you not only protect them, but also those around you!

Why is a second dose given?

The second dose is used to provide immunity to the approximately 5% of people who did not develop immunity with the first dose. It is not a booster because it doesn’t boost the effect of the first dose.

The second MMR helps some people develop immunity if the first vaccine did not work effectively.

This second dose can be given as early as 28 days after the first.

Why don’t we start the vaccine series earlier?

Many parents worry that we don’t give live virus vaccines to infants because they’re less safe, but that’s not why at all.

Maternal antibodies (fighter cells from mom that got into baby during pregnancy) can inhibit the body from being able to build its own antibodies well against a vaccine.

Maternal antibodies are good because as long as they’re in the baby’s body, they fight off germs and protect the infant! They tend to hang around for the first 6-12 months of life.

If a disease has a low incidence, it is acceptable to let the maternal antibodies do their job for the first year.

By the first birthday most maternal antibodies have left the infant, so a vaccine can be used to build the baby’s immunity.

Sometimes we do vaccinate earlier

If there is a high risk of exposure it is recommended to give the vaccine as early as 6 months in case the maternal antibodies are already too low for infant protection.

Many parts of the world have high measles rates so fit into this recommendation. When infants between 6 and 12 months travel internationally, they should receive one dose of MMR vaccine prior to travel.

Sometimes during US outbreaks it is recommended to vaccinate infants 6-12 months. The local health department helps to determine which infants should be immunized in this situation.

If the maternal antibody levels are still high in the infant, the vaccine won’t work. In this situation the baby should still be protected against the disease from mom’s antibodies. That is why this early vaccine does not “count” toward the two needed after the first birthday.

At some point the maternal antibodies go away, we just don’t know when exactly, so the baby who gets the MMR early needs another dose after his first birthday to be sure he’s making his own antibodies once mom’s go away. This dose after the birthday is the first that “counts” toward the two MMRs that are needed.

The next dose of MMR can be anytime at least 28 days after the first counted dose, but we traditionally give it between 4-6 years with the kindergarten shots.

What if someone who hasn’t been vaccinated is exposed?

measles outbreaks, what can you do to protect your family
Source: http://www.immunize.org/photos/measles-photos.asp

The MMR vaccine may be effective if given within the first 3 days (72 hours) after exposure to measles. This is why the local health department is so aggressive in identifying cases during an outbreak.

Immune globulin (IGIM, a type of immunity that doesn’t require a person to make their own immunity) may be effective for as long as 6 days after exposure. IGIM should be given to all infants younger than 6-12 months who have been exposed to measles. The MMR vaccine can be given instead of IGIM to infants age 6 through 11 months, if it can be given within 72 hours of exposure.

Are boosters of the MMR needed?

are mmr boosters needed
From my practice Facebook page. Note: In this reply I was going off of my experience many years ago. At that time the advice was only 1 additional MMR, but my research for this blog shows otherwise!

Those of us who work in healthcare must have titers checked to verify immunity to many of the vaccine preventable diseases.

Healthcare workers come into contact with sick patients and patients with weak immune systems, so this is one way to help control disease spread.

From Immunize.org:
Adults with no evidence of immunity (defined as documented receipt of 1 dose [2 doses 4 weeks apart if high risk] of live measles virus-containing vaccine, laboratory evidence of immunity or laboratory confirmation of disease, or birth before 1957) should get 1 dose of MMR unless the adult is in a high-risk group. High-risk people need 2 doses and include healthcare personnel, international travelers, students at post-high school educational institutions, people exposed to measles in an outbreak setting, and those previously vaccinated with killed measles vaccine or with an unknown type of measles vaccine during 1963 through 1967.

Most people don’t know their immune status, and it’s not recommended at this time to check it for the general population.

During an outbreak exposed people might be asked to be tested to help identify risk factors and track disease patterns.

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Dark Under Eye Circles

I see a lot of kids with circles under their eyes. There’s a lot of confusion as to what causes them. Dark circles under the eyes may simply be hereditary – a trait that runs in families, but they also can signify chronic disease.

I’ll cover some causes that are feared but not likely and common causes that can be treated to help decrease the dark appearance of the circles.

Not likely causes

Anemia

allergic shiners, circles under eyesMany parents worry that anemia, or a low red blood cell count, is causing their child’s under eye circles. I’m not sure why this thought is so prevalent, but it’s not the first thing I think about when I see dark circles under the eyes of a child.

Iron deficiency is linked to anemia because iron is a building block of a red blood cell. Iron deficiency is relatively common in kids due to poor diet, so if your kids don’t eat foods rich in iron, you should talk to their doctor.

Anemia can happen in kids, but if under eye circles is the only symptom, it’s not likely. If there are other symptoms then blood work might be indicated.

Symptoms of anemia may include:

  • Pale skin, including the inner eyelids
  • Irritability
  • Feeling tired or having low energy
  • Poor focus and attention
  • Weakness
  • Craving of ice or eating non-food items (pica)
  • Rarely (with more severe anemia)
    • Yellow jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Fast breathing
    • Swelling of hands, feet, or puffy eyelids

Poor sleep

Yes, we often think of circles under the eyes from poor sleep. Poor sleep is not usually the cause of under eye circles in a child, especially when they otherwise appear well rested.

Kids who have chronically poor sleep can appear tired and sluggish, but they also have other symptoms, such as irritability, hyperactivity, poor school performance, and increased injuries.

If you’re worried about your child’s sleep, talk to your pediatrician.

Vitamin deficiency

There are many products containing various vitamins that are sold to help decrease under eye circles, but evidence is lacking that vitamin deficiencies are common causes of under eye circles in children.

Unless there are other significant problems, it is not recommended to check vitamin levels to evaluate under eye circles.

If your child is a picky eater and has a limited intake of nutrients, talk to your pediatrician.

What does cause dark under eye circles?

The skin under the eyes is very thin, so when blood passes through the thin skin it can produce a dark color, much like the blue color of your veins. If the blood circulation slows, the blue color can be more noticeable.

Congestion in your sinuses can lead to congestion in the small veins under your eyes. The blood collects in the skin under your eyes and these swollen veins dilate and darken. This creates the effect of dark circles and puffiness.

Dark circles are of course more noticeable in fair skinned people.

The most common cause of under eye circles is chronic congestion, but chronic congestion can be from various causes.

Allergic shiners

Allergies are probably the most common cause of dark circles under the eyes, so the circles are also called “allergic shiners.” They get this name due to the purplish hue of the skin, resembling a black eye, AKA “shiner.”

If allergies are the cause, you will usually see other symptoms of allergy, such as

  • Runny nose
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy throat
  • Itchy roof of mouth
  • Sinus pressure or fullness

Treating the allergies can often make the allergic shiners disappear.

Upper respiratory tract infections

Viruses that cause nasal congestion can also lead to dark circles under the eyes. These can be brief if the cold clears quickly, or seem to come and go with recurrent infections, as often happens during the cold and flu season.

Sinus infections can cause chronic congestion, leading to dark under eye circles.

Though there’s no quick fix to most upper respiratory tract infections because they’re caused by viruses, you can use saline nasal rinses to help clear some of the congestion.

Smoke exposure

Smokers and their children often have chronic congestion.

Studies show that second hand smoke leads to more frequent upper respiratory tract infections and ear infections in kids. It’s not surprising that these kids also develop chronic circles under their eyes.

Mouth breathing

Mouth breathing can itself be from many causes.

Commonly nasal congestion from allergies and upper respiratory tract infections leads to mouth breathing.

Large adenoids can also contribute to mouth breathing and under eye circles, as explained by Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, Dr. Deborah Burton in GET THE TRUTH ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES OF MOUTH BREATHING.

Dehydration

Dehydration can make dark circles look more prominent due to sluggish blood flow.

The eyes also appear to sink into the sockets when we’re dehydrated, which can accentuate the dark circle appearance.

Treating and preventing under eye circles

The best ways to prevent dark circles include many things that help us stay healthy anyway.

  • Control allergies
  • Teach kids to wash their hands and keep hands away from their face to help prevent infections
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Use sunscreen (sun damages skin over time)
  • Give a healthy balance of foods and talk to your pediatrician if your child isn’t eating a good variety of nutrients
  • Ensure plenty of sleep for age
  • Use nasal saline rinses (see below)
  • If chronically congested or mouth breathing, talk to your child’s doctor to find and address a cause
  • Avoid smoke and secondhand smoke, which lead to chronic congestion
  • Use moisturizers if skin is dry
  • Avoid pollution as much as possible, since it can contribute to chronic congestion

Saline rinses

I often refer to Nasopure’s website because it has great instructions on how to rinse the nose for kids as young as 2 years of age. It also has videos to help kids get comfortable with the idea. I refer to the site simply because I like it, and I receive no compensation for the recommendation.

I do participate in the Amazon Affiliate program, and if you use one of these links to purchase a nasal wash kit, I do make a small profit. As always, I only link to products that I endorse regardless of where you purchase it.


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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

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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

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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



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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!


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