Nip it in the bud?

When kids start to get sick, don’t you wish you could nip it in the bud before it gets worse?

If your kids have ever been sick, you know it can go from an annoyance to a fairly scary ordeal pretty quickly. When should you bring your kids to the doctor so we can prevent their symptoms from getting worse? We all want to know when we can nip it in the bud!

Can we prevent progression and spread of illness?

Mom: We’re here because my little one has a cold. It always settles in her ears, so I want to get on top of things and nip it in the bud this time.

Me: Her ears look great today, so keep doing what you’re doing. I’m glad you’ve started giving extra fluids, using saline in her nose, and letting her stay home from preschool to rest.

Mom: But we have family coming into town. They have a new baby, so I don’t want the baby to get sick. Can’t we just have an antibiotic now to help everyone?

Me: There’s no sign of a bacterial infection. She has what’s most likely a cold from a virus. Antibiotics don’t help.

Mom: But can’t we just try? She always gets an ear infection.

Me: It doesn’t work that way. Antibiotics don’t prevent ear infections. They don’t even treat the large majority of ear infections, since they’re viral. 

Mom: But we’ll be around a baby.

Me: An antibiotic would give a false sense of security. Your daughter would still be contagious from the virus. Viruses can be very serious in newborns. Your daughter shouldn’t be around the new baby until she’s well. 

Mom: But …

This circular conversation can continue indefinately.

I hear requests like this all the time. Unfortunately, illness doesn’t work that way. We don’t give antibiotics to prevent ear infections. They don’t stop the spread of most infections because most are from viruses.

If your doctor gave you antibiotics for your last cold “just in case” and you felt better, it’s likely you would have felt better anyway. That’s what happens with colds.

I realize when your baby has had several ear infections it seems tempting to give a treatment to prevent this cold from turning into another ear infection. But it doesn’t work that way. 

But she always gets and ear infection...

Antibiotics don’t:

  • Prevent the spread of viral illnesses. 
  • Keep an illness from changing from a virus to a bacteria.
  • Make all sinus infections go away.
  • Treat all ear infections.
  • Make people feel better immediately.
  • Come without risk.
Antibiotics usually aren't needed for sinus pressure, which is typically from a virus or allergies.

You take risks every time you use an antibiotic.

We need to use antibiotics wisely. Antibiotics are generally safe and most of us tolerate them well. But sometimes they lead to side effects, such as rashes and diarrhea. They can also cause true allergic reactions.

Over time bacteria can learn how to avoid being killed by antibiotics, called developing resistance. This can put us all at risk of deadly bacterial infections that have no cure. 

You take risks every time you take an antibiotic. Use them only when necessary.

But we have to get better fast!

  • Your teen has finals.
  • You must get back to work.
  • The baby being up all night fussing is wearing you down.
  • Your family has a big trip coming up.
  • You’re pregnant and you don’t want a sick family member in the home.

Whatever the circumstance, we can’t make someone not contagious anymore. It takes time for the symptoms of a virus to go away. There’s just no short cut. No way to prevent the natural course and progression

Up next…

Next week we’ll talk about what to do when you or your family is sick and how to prevent illness in the first place. (Prevention is always best!)

Sudden Barky Cough? Think Croup

The barky cough of croup is distinctive. It’s not a typical wet or congested cough. It’s like a seal bark. The good news is we can often treat it at home.

Many parents get scared when they hear the barky cough of croup. I’ve even been scared when my own children have it. I know what it is, but their breathing gets so labored that it’s scary.

Sounds of coughing

Parents describe many coughs as “croupy” but most of the time they’re mistaking a wet, mucous-filled cough for croup.

It can be difficult to sort out all the various sounds of coughing, which is why I previously gathered a number of videos into one blog.

The barky cough of croup is distinctive. It’s not a typical wet or congested cough. It’s like a seal bark. The good news is we can often treat it at home.

What is croup?

Croup is a distinctive set of symptoms that occur due to inflammation around a young child’s voicebox in the larynx and trachea.

Many people describe a croupy cough as a seal bark sound. They often make a hoarse or squeaky sound called stridor when they inhale.

Croup often starts suddenly in the middle of the night. 

What causes croup?

Croup is usually caused by viruses and tends to be most common in the Fall. The viruses that cause croup are common and usually cause runny nose or congestion and sometimes cause a fever. 

One child may get full-blown croup, but another will get a simple cold with the same virus. Some kids seem to get croup often, while others may never get it.

Can older kids get croup?

Croup is most common in kids less than 5 years of age, but older kids can occasionally get it. 

Older children and adults tend to get laryngitis with the same viruses that cause croup. Their airways are bigger, so the swelling that occurs near the voicebox isn’t as severe.

Croup is tricky

Croup often looks like a simple upper respiratory tract infection or cold during the day. Nothing to worry about…

In the middle of the night you will hear a sudden barking sound, much like a seal barking. A child with croup looks distressed and very sick at night, but seems much better the next day. 

For many kids, it’s just one night of this scary cough, but it can last several nights in others.

Some kids continue to have what is called stridor or trouble talking during the day. Stridor is a hoarse sound that you can replicate by breathing in while tightening your vocal cords. It sounds like a squeak or wheeze as kids breath in. Stridor is due to the swelling near the vocal cords that’s found in croup.

This is a simple yet very helpful video to hear the sound of croup and for management tips. 

How is croup diagnosed?

Croup is what we call a clinical diagnosis. No lab or x-ray is needed.

A doctor or nurse will ask questions about various symptoms, and if we hear the classic cough or stridor, it supports the diagnosis.

How is croup treated?

If you recognize croup, there are many at home treatments you can try. 

Cool air

Taking kids outside into the cool night air often helps soothe the airway. 

If the weather isn’t appropriate, you can open your freezer door and let them breathe in that air. (This has never been my favorite advice because it means a sick kid will be breathing on the frozen food and then there’s the wasted energy…)

Steam

The airway can also be soothed by taking kids into a bathroom, closing the door, and turning the shower to the hottest setting. Just sit in the bathroom – not in the shower. 

Usually after 10-15 minutes breathing normalizes. 

One thing I learned when my son first had croup: don’t leave the bathroom as soon as breathing calms down. Turn off the shower and just sit there for awhile. We had a rebound croup that was less scary, but unnecessary, when we tried to get him back to bed quickly. Letting the room get closer to the home’s normal air quality before going back into the hall and bedroom is time well spent.

Humidifiers and vaporizers

When we’re sick in the dry weather months, I always recommend adding a vaporizer or humidifier to the bedrooms. This is especially helpful if a child is at risk for croup due to age.

What about medicine?

Fever/pain relievers

If kids are uncomfortable, you can use acetaminophen or ibuprofen as a pain reliever. These do not help the cough, but they can help with comfort.

Steroids

Since steroids decrease inflammation, they are often used when kids get croup. These can only be used with a prescription and your doctor’s instructions. See your doctor if you’re interested in any prescription medicine.

Breathing treatments

Croup is often mistaken for wheezing, but it is not treated with a bronchodilator like asthma.

The swelling near the voicebox is much different than the smaller airway narrowing that occurs with wheezing, and the bronchodilators (albuterol or levalbuterol) work on the smaller airways. 

If kids have asthma, they can wheeze from the same virus that leads to croup, and in that case their asthma medicine helps.

In the hospital or ER setting some kids will get a breathing treatment of epinepherine. This should only be done in a supervised setting so they can be properly monitored.

Antibiotics

Croup is usually caused by a virus, so antibiotics don’t help.

There is also something called spasmotic croup, but that also is not treated with antibiotics. 

When should kids go to the ER or their doctor?

Since croup is worst at night, most of the kids who need to be seen end up in the ER. If your child has stridor during the day, they can be seen at their usual doctor’s office. 

If the above home treatments don’t work after about 15-20 minutes, you should take your child to be seen.

Kids who seem very anxious due to breathing difficulties will also benefit from a proper medical exam and treatment.

Trouble swallowing along with difficulty breathing should be evaluated by a physician.

If you notice that your child seems better leaning slightly forward while sitting, he should be seen.

Any child who is not up to date on vaccines, especially the Hib vaccine, should be seen with labored breathing. Epiglottitis is now rare, thanks to vaccines, but if a child isn’t vaccinated, it is still possible to get this. It can cause stridor, fever, difficulty breathing, and other similar symptoms to croup. Be sure the physician knows your child isn’t vaccinated!

My child has Neutropenia. Should I worry?

One abnormal lab we see in otherwise healthy kids is a low absolute neutrophil count (ANC). This is also called neutropenia. Know when you should worry.

It is recommended to screen for anemia (low red blood cell or hemoglobin levels) around one year of age. Our office orders a complete blood count (CBC), which checks for red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets – the main components of our blood. Sometimes we find things that we weren’t looking for. In the winter months, neutropenia is one of those things.

What is neutropenia?

One relatively frequent abnormal lab we see is a low absolute neutrophil count (ANC). A low ANC is also called neutropenia.

What are neutrophils?

Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that fights bacterial infections. When their numbers get too low, it can increase the risk of serious bacterial infections.

While some people have low ANCs that cause significant immune deficiencies and can lead to infection, the most commonly seen low ANC we see are brief dips after a viral infection. 

Blausen 0676 Neutrophil
By BruceBlaus. Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014”. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

What causes neutropenia?

Most causes of neutropenia are due to infection, drugs, severe malnutrition or immune disorders.

The most common cause of neutropenia we see in otherwise healthy kids is due to a recent infection. In most cases this type of neutropenia quickly resolves without any treatment.

Some viruses, such as hepatitis B, Epstein-Barr, and HIV, are associated with prolonged neutropenias.

The drugs that can cause neutropenia are not commonly used medications.  Routine testing for neutropenia would be done when those medications are used because the risk is known. That’s one reason why people with cancer treatments often have regular blood counts checked.

Vitamin B12, folate, and copper deficiencies are very uncommon in children, but can lead to abnormal blood counts.

Three levels of neutropenia:

The large majority of kids with neutropenia have only mild drops in their ANC and are not at significant risk of illness. In general the more severe the drop, the more significant the infection risk.

  • Mild neutropenia: The ANC ranges between 1000-1500/μL
  • Moderate neutropenia: The ANC ranges between 500-1000/μL
  • Severe neutropenia: The ANC is less than 500/μL

What do you do if there’s neutropenia?

Since most mild cases of neutropenia self-resolve, it is not usually anything for parents to worry about.

I used to recheck all of these, but found that many kids needed several rechecks because they always had a mild viral infection so the levels stayed suppressed (low). Despite the low ANC, they never got significantly sick.

Of course if there is another clinical reason, such as a significant illness or growth problems, following up even a mild lab abnormality is recommended. If kids start getting sick, their blood counts should be rechecked because of the clinical concern.

When kids are otherwise healthy, I find that we end up chasing abnormal levels if we try to recheck, so I’ve stopped rechecking automatically.

  • When a child is overall healthy and growing well, the level is only mildly low (above 1000) I do not recheck the level unless there is a clinical concern. If your doctor wants to recheck it (or if you want it rechecked), that is appropriate to do.
  • When the level is in the mid-range (500-1000) or if the child has had problems with recurrent infections or growth, a confirmation (repeat test) and possible further evaluation is more likely to be recommended.
  • If the level is in the severe range (less than 500), it should be rechecked and the child should be closely monitored due to high risk of severe bacterial infections.
  • Some physicians recommend repeating a blood count with any fever for a year in kids who have had any degree of neutropenia, so you’ll have to talk to your child’s doctor for a plan.

What symptoms might happen if the ANC is low?

Most children with a temporarily and mildly low ANC will have no symptoms and need no treatment.

Children with chronically low ANCs may have more infections that require antibiotics, such as pneumonia, skin infections (abscesses, cellulitis) and lymph node infections. They might also have chronic gum disease, mouth sores, or vaginal or rectal ulcers.

Common colds often contribute to the temporary dip in the ANC, but are not caused by the low ANC. A different type of white blood cell fights off viral infections, so the low neutrophil count is specific to bacterial infection risk. 

Common symptoms seen with neutropenia:

  • Frequent significant infections (not just the chronic runny nose of a daycare kid)
  • Serious respiratory infections, including pneumonia or sinus infections
  • Skin infections (e.g. cellulitis, abscesses)
  • Multiple serious infections (e.g. meningitis, bone infections)
  • Lymph node infections
  • Gum disease
  • Mouth sores/ulcers
  • Vaginal, urethral, or rectal ulcers

When should you worry?

The level of ANC as well as the cause both determine the risk level.

Lower levels of neutrophils increase the risk of an overwhelming infection. An example would be when people are immune suppressed from chemotherapy they are at very high risk of bacterial infections.

On the other hand, an otherwise healthy person with a mildly low ANC is not more likely to get a bacterial infection than another person with a normal ANC.

If the child has any of the symptoms noted above or a very low ANC level, we start to worry more. Each case must be evaluated by the person who ordered the test and who has recently seen your child.

What treatment is done for a low ANC?

Most children do not need any specific treatment. They are monitored for recurrent infections, especially infections that require antibiotics. They are also monitored for growth, since if a body is chronically sick, it often doesn’t grow well.

Each infection that requires antibiotics is treated and blood counts might be checked to see how low they are at the time.

In children who have a chronically low ANC or a significant illness with a low ANC, a hematologist (blood specialist) is often consulted. They help evaluate why the ANC is low and if it requires a special treatment that stimulates the bone marrow to make more neutrophils.

For more information:

Benign familial leukopenia and neutropenia in different ethnic groups.

Pediatric Autoimmune and Chronic Benign Neutropenia

Downsides of outside urgent cares

Do the downsides of using an outside urgent care outweigh the benefits? Is it worth it to wait for your usual doctor’s office?

I started writing a simple blog about using urgent cares appropriately to get the best care, but I quickly realized that it’s a bigger topic than it first seems. I’ve covered the visit experience itself and the benefits of using your medical home. Now it’s time to talk about the downsides of using an urgent care outside your medical home. Do the downsides of using an outside urgent care outweigh the benefits? Is it worth it to wait for your usual doctor’s office?

Who will you see?

There are many types of independent urgent cares. My community has some that are associated with hospital systems or pharmacies and some that are independent. They are staffed with many different types of providers. Some are even pediatric focused, but others are staffed with people who have little training or experience seeing kids. That means you need to know who you’re seeing and what their background is.

Limited pediatric experience

The provider at the clinic may or may not have adequate training in pediatrics. They often do not have others around who can help if a problem arises that is out of their comfort zone or level of experience and training.

This can lead to over treatment,  under recognition of a serious condition, and over testing with unnecessary labs or x-rays.

Training matters

Simply put, make sure your provider has extensive training in pediatrics.

This is not a “we’re better than you” point.

I do not think that every physician is a good clinician by default. Neither do I think nurse practitioners or physician assistants are not good at what they do. Both physicians as well as NPs and PAs can be great or not so great. We all have our strengths and weaknesses which are built on our interests, training, and experience.

I am getting the following numbers from What Kind of Doctor is Your Doctor? The link includes a nice chart of even more doctor types.

Pediatricians spend at least 3 years during residency learning how to take care of kids. This involves about 2400 hours per year for 3 years taking care of sick kids after medical school. Medical school is about 6000 hours of training. Total clinical training (excluding college years) is a minimum of 13,600 hours. Pediatricians know kids.

Family physicians also spend 3 years in residency after medical school, but that time is not focused on child health. The amount of training caring for children varies based on the program and their experiences.

Physician Assistants spend 2-3 years in a master’s program, with an estimated training time of 2000 hours total. This is not focused on child health at most programs. Much like family physicians, their time is divided between adults and children.

Nurse practitioners spend 1-2 years in a master’s or doctorate program. Clinical training requirements vary from 500-1000 hours. Again, these hours include both adult and pediatric patients. Traditionally most nurse practitioners went into graduate school after many years of nursing experience. That is becoming less common as many are going straight from nursing school into graduate programs, so they do not always have those working years of experience prior to getting their advanced degree.

Years of experience

Of course with all of the training hours, there is also experience after training. You are correct if you say that every person with experience is not better than someone without experience, but in general experience helps.

If a person spends 40+ hours a week for many years taking care of kids, they  continue to learn along the way. Sometimes they pick up bad habits, but I can only hope that with experience comes competence. This is best done when people work in a setting that has more experienced colleagues to offer advice along the way, not when they’re thrown into a clinic alone from day one and made to figure it out on their own.

Remember all those clinical hours medical residents spend learning? They are essentially working under those who are more experienced for several years, learning to manage complex (and minor) issues along the way. So even a brand new physician has more experience than some other providers with several years of work experience that may or may not have been supervised.

The risk of getting what you want vs what you need

Most people use walk in clinics for convenience. When their child is sick or injured, they want help ASAP. That’s understandable.

I’ve written before about why convenience isn’t always best and why sometimes it’s okay to wait. Here’s a very common example of not getting what you need:

If a baby is crying, the eardrum gets red, but isn’t necessarily infected.

Misdiagnosis

A provider without a lot of experience will often err on calling it an ear infection simply because it’s red. That makes parents happy because they think they’re doing something to make their child better.

They’re not if it’s not a bacterial infection. There’s risk to taking unnecessary medicine.

Quick medicine

It’s fastest to write a prescription and move on to the next patient rather than to explain what to do to treat a viral infection.

This is not good care, but it’s common.

Treatments don’t always need a prescription

Don’t feel like you leave empty-handed if you leave the clinic with the information that your child doesn’t need labs or prescription medicine.

Leave with the knowledge of what to do if symptoms change.

Learn how you can help ease symptoms and make them feel better.

You’re not empty-handed – you’re empowered with knowledge!

And then there’s the required surveys…

You have probably been asked to do a survey after shopping. Sometimes you do it for store credit or to help a nice sales person meet their quota.

Sadly, surveys have made their way into healthcare. We can’t offer a discount for your next visit, but many of us are required to collect a certain number of surveys each quarter.

Medical staff are being graded by patients to be sure they’re giving “quality care” ~ and I put that in quotes because I don’t believe that it measures quality at all. I discuss this in more detail in Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Giving a prescription for an antibiotic makes parents happy, regardless if it is necessary. They feel like their trip was worth it because they “got something” to treat the symptoms. This means better satisfaction scores for the clinic because people like to leave with a treatment. It also brings in more money because faster turn around means more patients can be seen. The shorter wait time also drives up satisfaction despite the fact that it’s not good care.

It takes longer to explain how to treat a cold than it does to write a quick script. Parents are generally happy with the visit, but antibiotics are overused and the recommended treatments aren’t adequately discussed. And that’s not okay.

No follow-up

Independent urgent cares do not offer follow-up of issues to see if there is improvement.

Not following up not only prevents assurance that the patient gets appropriate follow-up, but it also keeps the provider from learning how diseases and conditions progress over time. This is one reason why some people with years of experience still tend to over treat or under recognize things.

Phone help

Stand alone urgent cares do not take phone calls to answer medical questions. They don’t even answer follow-up questions about your visit by phone.

If you have questions, you must call your PCP or return to the urgent care. If we haven’t seen the child for the issue, we are unable to give appropriate advice.

Prescription “refills”

I’ve been asked on many occasions to refill a medication from an urgent care because it was spilled or forgotten on a trip.

I can’t refill a prescription I didn’t write.

The parent can’t call the urgent care provider for a refill because they don’t accept calls.

That’s quite a predicament!

Referrals

If you require a referral to see a specialist for any reason, it is usually required for your PCP to do that paperwork. There are insurance plans that do not require referrals, and you may schedule on your own unless the specialist requires a referral.

If we haven’t seen your child for the issue at hand, especially if we have no documentation at all about the referral, we often cannot do it without seeing your child.

Why do we need to see your child first?

It is one of the requirements that we must abide by in some of our insurance contracts. Seeing the physician who knows a patient best can help to avoid unnecessary appointments with specialists.

Required documentation

Sometimes it’s as simple as we can’t refer for something we don’t know about. Many referrals require a copy of an office visit.

If we didn’t see your child for a visit, we have no visit supporting the need for the referral. We need documentation to send for the referral.

Sometimes a specialist is not needed

I have seen many situations where an urgent care physician, NP, or PA recommends follow-up with a specialist of some sort that isn’t needed. They often don’t realize that it is quite within the scope of practice of a primary care provider. They cannot know the skill set of every PCP in town. Call your PCP to see if they can handle the issue. It can save you money in lesser copays if you see your PCP first.

An example of this is a concussion. Every provider in my office is competent following most concussions and clearing for play when indicated. Other examples are rashes (including acne), simple fractures and constipation. I’ve seen patients who waited a very long time and paid a lot of money to see specialists for each of these indications based solely on the urgent care recommendation. Most of the time I’m completely unaware of the whole issue until I see them next and they mention seeing the specialist.

They get the same treatment plan at the specialist as we could provide in my office, but at a much higher cost and decreased convenience.

Incorrect diagnosis

I’ve also seen a number of kids with issues diagnosed at urgent care centers that I disagree with the assessment or plan. This brings us back to all the issues listed above.

One common example of this is a toddler with “recurrent ear infections” who has only had ear infections when seen by an urgent care provider. Every time they see me with the same symptoms, their ears are okay. I often wonder if these kids ever had a real ear infection. Maybe they did and it is simply coincidence, but if they didn’t, they don’t need the risk of anesthesia for tubes. I’d like to have the conversation face to face with the parent after I examine the ears myself.

Continuity of care

There are gaps in care even at urgent cares where there is a pediatrician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant with extensive pediatric training.

They do not know your child’s full medical background and do not update your child’s health record in the medical home.

Following in one office allows us to see the chronicity or recurrence risk of an issue. If your child goes multiple places for every sore throat, no one recognizes that a tonsillectomy might be beneficial.

Related posts

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Convenience Care

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

Improper Use of Antibiotics: Don’t take the risk

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

Evolution of Illness

Why Wait to See Your Regular Doctor?

Why should you wait to see your regular doctor? The benefits of using your regular doctor’s office to see your PCP or another provider with access to your child’s medical record are many. I previously wrote several tips about how to use an urgent care wisely, but I wanted to spend more time on the benefits of going to your own doctor rather than an independent walk in clinic in more detail, so removed that portion of the post.

Almost as promised, here it is. The almost is that I promised to post this the next week, but a few other topics interrupted the posting schedule. Better late than never!

There is more to this than could be covered in one post, so this is Part 2. It covers the benefits of seeing someone in your regular doctor’s office. Part 3 will cover some of the problems with seeing someone in an independent urgent care.

Your primary care office knows you

Humans benefit from relationships in many ways. When you see the same people over and over, familiarity brings comfort. This can be the same face at the reception desk, the same nurses, or the same physician. Even if the faces change from time to time, the overall clinic’s familiarity can bring comfort in a time of significant illness or disease. When you have something difficult to talk about, it’s easier with someone you’ve built a trusting relationship.

Consider teens…

Think of tweens and teens who need an adult to ask for advice.

If they do not have a medical home where they feel welcome, they are less likely to talk about their problems.

As much as we’d all like to think that our kids will talk to us, they aren’t always comfortable with that. I’ve had kids ask parents to leave to talk about so many issues. Some of their “confidential questions” may seem silly to not talk about with a parent, such as how to use deodorant or how to shave, but it happens. Some are really troubling things, such as suicidal thoughts or abusive relationships.

These need to be discussed with a responsible adult, not another tween or teen, so I’m happy when they are comfortable talking to me.

If they’ve come to the same place year after year for illnesses, injuries, and yearly well visits, they will feel more comfortable.

Even different faces in the same practice offers some consistency

Even if you see different physicians, NPs, or PAs from time to time or go to a satellite office, there is still continuity within that practice.

The medical record has your child’s immunization history, previous drug reactions, any underlying illnesses or frequency of illnesses, as well as any other pertinent information. As long as you use that clinic for most medical care. The more often you use outside clinics, the less comprehensive the medical record becomes.

Primary Care Providers (PCPs) and their staff also know your family and that alone can help!

Business of medicine

Talking about the business of medicine might seem self-serving, and it is, but think about keeping your favorite physician in business. The reality is many private clinics are selling out (or just joining) larger health systems. This raises healthcare costs, increases administrative burdens, and diminishes the personal touch of healthcare.

I hate thinking about business and insurance issues, but as a business owner, I must.

I have two big regrets from my student days.

The first is that I wish I studied abroad because once work and family life start, it’s too hard to take long trips.

The second is that I wish I took business classes to prepare myself for a career in medicine. Most medical students are so eager to learn the massive information about medicine, they forget that one day they might be a business owner.

Unfortunately the number of physicians who own their own practice is falling. I suspect that has a lot to do with physician burnout and the increasing suicide rate of physicians, but that’s another topic!

I’ve learned a lot of business along the way, in large part to SOAPM. Unfortunately not all physicians have learned about business. Life is busy and it’s hard to balance everything. We tend to already work long hours, so it’s hard to fit one more thing in at the end of the day. I think medicine is in the state it’s in now because healthcare has been led by non-clinical business people who might understand business, but have no idea how it impacts the health of people.

Care outside your primary office (Medical Home)

Now that many routine visits are going to outside providers, family physicians and pediatricians are struggling to stay in business.

We still see our patients for illnesses, but they tend to be more chronic issues.

Daily headaches for the past 6 months takes a lot more time in the office than an earache that started this morning. We can’t see as many chronic issues as acute illnesses, so the amount of money we bring into the office is down due to less volume.

The costs of rent, insurance, staff salaries, and more doesn’t go down, so covering those costs becomes difficult.

Urgent care from a business perspective

Routine sick visits are quick and easy.

They’re the bread and butter of primary care offices.

That’s why urgent care centers are popping up in pharmacies and on every other corner. They are short visits, but insurance companies pay well for them. Because they’re short, many can be done in a standard shift. This brings in easy money to a clinic.

Chronic issues, mental and behavioral health, and other issues not typically seen in urgent cares take more time.

If a patient with symptoms more than what can be handled in an urgent care shows up, they are quickly assessed, offered a token treatment and told to follow up with their doctor. Or they’re simply told to go to the ER. Urgent cares don’t waste time on big issues.

The impact urgent care use has on a PCP schedule

You wouldn’t think at first of all the trickle down effects that going elsewhere for care has on your primary doctor’s life.

Remember that if we’re not seeing patients, we aren’t brining money into the practice. The money doesn’t directly line our pockets – it’s needed to pay essential bills. We have to fill our day with patients one way or another.

Well visits and short vs long sick visits

Many doctor’s offices differentiate sick and well slots in their appointment schedule. This allows us to see a balance of well visits for routine care as well as to save time for sick kids and those with chronic issues. Many of us have short and long visit slots to account for the amount of time typically needed for each visit concern.

The more patients go to urgent cares for quick visits, the fewer same day short sick visit slots are needed in PCP schedules. This means we must adjust our schedules to have more well visit and longer chronic issue slots so we’re not sitting around doing nothing.

Schedules of today look and feel different

Since we have less need for short acute visits, we fill those with longer chronic issue visits and well visits. Both of these tend to fill in advance, unlike short acute visits that tend to be needed on the same day.

Some days that means my patients who want to see me are told I have no availability. They can still be seen in my office’s walk in clinic, but they can’t schedule with me.  I’d like to be able to see my patients when they want to be seen, but supply and demand ring true.

Unfortunately, these longer visits are relative money losers and they can be more emotionally draining for the physician due to the chronic nature of the conditions seen. Some days I wish to be able to see a straight forward earache or sore throat….

How much is a visit worth?

We use a billing system that identifies an office visit by complexity and time. This is set by regulations, not your doctor’s office -unless they’re a concierge cash based practice.

A typical sick visit that lasts about 10- 15 minutes is considered a 99213, which is valued at about $74. So two sick visits is therefore worth about $148.

If a visit is over 25 minutes or complex, it is considered a 99214, which is valued at $109. We therefore lose nearly $40 for every prolonged visit because we spend more time. If we saw two different patients in that same time, we’d bring more money into the practice.

Once in awhile this isn’t a big deal, but as more people go to urgent cares for routine illnesses, PCPs are left with mostly complex visits. This hurts the bottom line and is emotionally more draining for the physician. It’s hard to deal with serious issues all day long.

This isn’t about being greedy.

If I was in it for the money, I wouldn’t have picked pediatrics after medical school.

Pediatricians are consistently some of the lowest paid physicians.

I chose pediatrics because I love it. But I still have to pay the bills at the end of the day. We have to pay office rent (or mortgage), malpractice insurance, insurance on our vaccine supply and other inventory, salaries for all staff, health insurance for staff, IT equipment and management, ect.

Just like any business, it takes money coming in to stay in business.

Changes to the value of a visit?

There’s a proposal to change the way office visits are paid by insurance companies.

This is a proposal to have insurance companies set the relative value for each visit at the same payment rate. This means if you’re seen for 5 minutes the doctor gets paid the same as if they spend 45 minutes with you.

I see this being very detrimental for pediatric care because it will encourage many quick visits instead of a comprehensive visit. But if we spend too long with a patient, we can’t earn enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month, so it will be necessary to make visits short to be able to see enough patients at the end of the day to cover costs.

I worry that people will gloss over issues that need more time. Abdominal pain is commonly constipation, but can be many things. We just won’t have time to talk it all through in one short visit.

This is a proposal that will benefit the independent walk in clinics that tend to see many earaches, coughs, rashes, and other quick issues. It will not be good for those of us who manage a lot of mental and behavioral health.

Or our patients.

Free advice is bad for business

It gets worse. Pediatricians give away advice for free all the time.

People call us to ask how to manage symptoms and conditions throughout the day and night. Most of these calls are done for free, yet we pay for staff to take them.

Often parents call and we give advice on how to manage symptoms before following up in the office during business hours. It isn’t uncommon to learn that parents took their child to a late night urgent care instead of waiting.

Parents often call asking if the care given elsewhere is appropriate or if we can we write a school excuse or refill medications when we never even saw the child for the issue.

We can’t manage what we didn’t see.

If you bring your business elsewhere, only go where you trust that the provider has experience with children and can handle your child’s symptoms. When you have questions about their treatment plan, ask them. If you need a school or work excuse, ask them for it.

You’d never buy a Kia and then ask Toyota for parts or free repairs. You return to the original dealer, right? (I chose these brands because they’re the two in my garage now. I have nothing against either, but they’re different.)

Urgent cares don’t give away anything for free.

Stand alone urgent cares don’t cover questions 24/7.

Primary care offices are required to offer 24/7 phone availability. Either they staff it themselves or they pay someone else to do it.

This is just one more way that urgent cares have the business advantage. They don’t have this monetary cost or quality of life issue.

All these calls hurt a medical home’s bottom line because we’re paying our staff to talk to families – often back and forth calls. It’s a considerable amount of time. Time for a service that brings in no money, but we still must pay staff to do it.

Physician burnout

You might wonder what physician burnout has to do with a person choosing to go to an outside urgent care or their physician’s office.

A lot really.

There’s of course a financial loss when people go elsewhere, but it’s more than that.

As mentioned above, the more urgent cares are utilized, the more a PCP must handle more difficult chronic problems, which tend to be more emotionally draining.

PCPs now have to spend extensive time documenting review of outside provider notes. Insurance companies are setting many rules and protocols to reconcile charts and update the primary care record whenever our patients see other providers. In the paper chart days, I could quickly skim consultant notes, but now it takes a couple of hours per day of unpaid time to review them all.

Seriously. Hours. Every day.

I struggle to keep up. And I’m not alone.

New reports come in every day – even when we’re off.

I’m guilty of logging in even when I’m on vacation. This is not healthy for me mentally. I know that. It’s bad for what should be my personal and family time. It’s just easier to me though to spend this time logging in so I can “do a few charts” to keep me from being overwhelmed when I’m back to work. There’s no time to catch up when I have to see patients all day and continue to get new charts to review each day.

Our physicians try to help others out when we’re on vacation, but many charts really should be seen by the PCP, not the partner.

Every day I go to work before seeing patients and stay a couple hours after I’m finished seeing patients. I review charts as I eat lunch unless I have a meeting so I can get home to my family a little earlier each day.

Charting does not bring satisfaction.

One of the benefits of working in healthcare is the satisfaction of knowing that we help others. All the years in training. The sleepless nights. Missed kids activities. All of this is worth it when we feel like we make a difference in someone’s life.

Reviewing charts does not help me feel like I am taking good care of patients. It does update me on what’s going on with them, but it isn’t fulfilling like when I see a patient and help them.

There are so many clicks to review one chart and update it as expected – reconciling mediation lists, updating hospitalizations or the injury list, and more. It’s difficult to keep up.

If most care is done in the medical home, the chart is updated at the time of the visit and these chart reviews would be less. Sometimes it is not advisable to stay within the medical home. There are true emergencies and times that specialists should get involved. These are unavoidable and necessary.

Most urgent care trips are not really urgent. They break the medical home concept for convenience.

No wonder there’s so much physician burnout these days.

Not only do we need to see more difficult or chronically sick patients because the quick acute care illnesses go elsewhere, but we also must review their notes and incorporate them into the patient chart for zero reimbursement.

That’s asking for burnout!

Use the Medical Home

What can you do to help your physician avoid burnout and stay in business?

Be seen by them whenever possible. Let them see the volume of patients they need to see to cover costs. Use them for quick sick visits as well as routine physicals and following up of chronic issues. Avoid going elsewhere unless it’s really needed.

The reality is that many private practice physicians are selling out to (or simply joining) big corporations because they can’t make ends meet.

I’ve heard their patients complain about the loss of personalized service and added costs.

Please consider the long term effects when you use outside services.

What keeps patients in the medical home?

There are many things that have been tried to allow people to be seen in their medical home. Not all work.

Sometimes people just think another location is more convenient. I know this because I get reports from urgent cares that saw a patient of mine when we were open. Instead of calling for an appointment or coming to my office’s walk in, which is available all hours that we’re open, they go elsewhere.

Extended hours

I’ve heard time and time again from patients, other physicians, and medical administration types that extending hours is important to private practice.

Even this can be a problem.

We see patients use outside urgent cares when we have regular business hours. Maybe a 5 minute shorter drive makes a difference?

My office even tried extending hours beyond our already generous regular hours. We were already open longer than standard business hours and our regular hours include walk in for patients all day every weekday and half days on Saturdays, but we stayed open even later for awhile.

Staying open later increased our expenses in staff salaries, but we found that people still went to other urgent care centers. We lost money at that time of day. People had asked for later hours, but then didn’t use them.

Walk in

One of the most complimented aspects of my office is the availability of our walk in clinic. Our patients can be seen in our office by one of our staff any time we’re open by simply walking in.

This has many of the benefits of being seen in the medical home while offering the flexibility of other urgent cares.

It still has the downside of not being able to see your PCP. You will see whoever is staffing the walk in clinic at that time, and of course this person can always consult with your PCP if needed.

It also has lead to the schedule changes noted above, since most people prefer this convenience. We now have relatively few short sick visit slots in the schedule. This can lead to less availability when there are a number of parents who prefer a scheduled appointment on the same day.

Phone calls

As mentioned above, PCPs must be available 24/7 by phone.

A phone call can be used by parents to keep their kids out of urgent cares and ERs. We can offer advice to get through the night (or until the office opens).

Follow the advice, and if your child needs to be seen, try to do it in the medical home. Of course if your child is in uncontrollable pain, is struggling to breathe, is dehydrated, or has other significant issues, he should be seen immediately.

Many offices, my own included, offer a ton of free advice on our websites. This has been debated from a business standpoint since it’s free advice. From a quality of life standpoint, the clinicians in my office like having things easily accessible for parents. When we give advice on the phone or during an office visit, much is forgotten. Having it easily accessible for parents to review is a great resource for them and helps to decrease the number of return calls for clarification. This also helps the physician’s quality of life.

Telehealth

There is a general push toward providing virtual visits through secure video conferencing. Even my insurance company keeps pushing me to register so that I can easily be “seen” when I’m sick. (I haven’t.)

I think this is a very dangerous slippery slope. Many sick people need to be examined to be able to properly diagnose things that require prescription treatments. Yet I know they are happy to call and get a prescription, so if it’s available they will use it.

Again, getting what you want is not always what you need.

I do see great potential for telehealth in the medical home and to improve access to specialists. It can be used to follow up on many issues in an appropriate way.

I worry that people will use it to get poor care for common acute sick issues. When your baby’s fussy or has a fever, you just want help, right? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should use it.

I strongly believe that we need guidelines to use this as a way to bring care to people when they could benefit from it. But telehealth should be restricted to only appropriate uses.

Related posts

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Convenience Care

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

Improper Use of Antibiotics: Don’t take the risk

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

Evolution of Illness

From Dr. Mick Connors in Contemporary Pediatrics: What happened to the pediatric medical home?

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

School’s back in session, which means sick season is approaching quickly! The pure volume of sick visits can be overwhelming for any clinic, whether visits are scheduled or walk in, but the nature of walk in clinics makes the volume unpredictable. Sometimes no one in walks in, other times several come at once. Urgent cares and walk in clinics are wonderful for the overall speed at which one can be seen, but how can you help streamline the process? How can you keep your primary care physician in the loop? Here are my top tips for a successful urgent care trip and knowing when to avoid them.

1.  Write down symptoms.

It sounds crazy to write down things since you know your child better than anyone, but if your child is sick you are probably sleep deprived and might forget important details.

Writing things down helps everyone summarize what is going on and get facts straight. The diagnosis often lies in the history, and if the person bringing the child in does not know symptoms well, it’s difficult to make a proper diagnosis.

This also forces you to think about the symptoms, and you might realize that you don’t know everything that’s going on. This is especially true if your child spends time away from you at school, daycare, or with another parent. It’s better to recognize that you need more of the story before you get to the clinic!

2.  Expect to be seen for one acute problem.

Illnesses typically have more than one symptom despite being a single illness. It’s appropriate to bring a child in for multiple symptoms, such as cough, fever, and sore throat.

It is not appropriate to bring them in for those issues as well as a wart and headache of 3 months off and on. If there are unrelated things, expect to deal with the most acute issue and then follow up with your usual physician to discuss the more chronic things at a scheduled appointment.

The nature of walk in clinics is that they move rapidly. The number of patients checking in at any given time can be large, so each visit must be quick. If you need more time to address many issues or one big condition, schedule an appointment.

3.  Don’t attempt to get care for a chronic issue.

Chronic issues are always best managed by your Primary Care Provider (PCP), but exacerbations of chronic issues might need to be seen quickly.

This means that sudden changes to a condition, such as wheezing in an asthmatic, can be addressed at an urgent care, but routine asthma management should be done during a scheduled visit. Your child can go to the walk in for the wheezing, but should follow up with the PCP with a scheduled appointment to discuss any changes needed to the daily medication regimen (Action Plan) to prevent further wheezing.

This is especially important if you went to another urgent care or ER for initial treatment so that your doctor knows about the recent exacerbation of a chronic issue.

4.  Do not add additional children to the visit.

Many parents bring additional kids to the visit and ask if we can “just take a peek” in their ears.

If you want them to be seen, check them in too. Again, walk in clinics move quickly and the “quick” peek often takes longer than you’d think because the child is running around the room or fighting the exam.

The quick peek also does not allow for documentation of findings in the medical record, which might be helpful in the future.

5.  Have your insurance card and co-payment ready at check in.

Streamline checking in by having everything ready.

It’s surprising to me how many people must return to their car for their wallet. For safety reasons, never leave a purse or wallet in your car.

6.  Try to bring only the child who is being seen.

It is difficult to focus on one sick child when another is running around the room, falling off the exam table, or constantly asking questions. This applies to scheduled as well as walk in visits.

I know this becomes a childcare issue, but it can really help focus on the child being seen if you leave additional children at home if at all possible. Think of friends who always offer to have a play date with the healthy child. Or maybe plan to bring one child when the other is at school.

If you must bring multiple kids, set the stage right by avoiding bringing tired and hungry kids. Don’t come at nap time if at all possible. Tired kids are miserable kids. Give them a healthy snack before going to the clinic. Don’t feed your kids at the office – another child could have a food allergy to whatever you’re feeding them, which can put other kids at risk. Bring books or toys that your kids can be entertained with during the visit.

7. Bring medications your child has recently taken.

Often parents have tried treatments at home, but are not sure what was in the bottle.

Bring all medications to help us advise on correct dosage and use of the medications. This includes prescription medicines as well as over the counter supplements, medicines, and natural therapies.

8. Use your regular doctor’s office if available.

I know not all doctor’s offices have walk in hours and most are not open all night long, but most walk in type visits are not emergent and they can wait until the next business day.

Treating symptoms with home remedies is quite acceptable for most illnesses for a couple days. This might even be beneficial to see how the symptoms change over time. Some kids are brought in at the first sign of fever, and look normal on exam, only to develop cough and earache over the next few days. When the symptoms change, so might the exam and treatments!

This is a very important issue and I’ll write more on it next week. Stay tuned! ***Check out Why Wait to See Your Regular Doctor ****

9.  Please don’t use walk in clinics to have health forms filled out.

I know it is tempting to get a quick physical to get a sports form or work physical signed, but doing so breaks the concept of a medical home.

If you get these forms completed outside your PCP’s office, you don’t get a comprehensive visit. The visit with your PCP should include reviewing growth, development, safety, immunization status, and more. It’s more than just filling out forms. You lose the opportunity to share what has happened in the past year and continue to build a trusting relationship.

If the medical home does all the well visits and vaccines, we have up to date records and can update them as needed. Some kids have missed school because vaccines were missed and they can’t return until they get them. Others have gotten extra doses of vaccines because a record of a shot was missing and parents can’t remember where they got the vaccine.

We request a well visit yearly in the medical home after age 3, more often for infants.  If in need of a well visit, please call the office to schedule!

10. Call first if you’re not sure!

If you’re not sure if it’s okay to tough it out at home overnight, call your doctor’s office.

We can often give tips on how to manage symptoms to save the emergency room co pay and germ exposure. Sometimes we do advise going to be seen. If there are concerns about dehydration, difficulty breathing, mental status changes, or other significant issues, waiting overnight is not appropriate.

Most urgent care visits are really not that urgent. They can be handled during normal business hours in your medical home!

Related posts

Don’t look for quick fixes for your cold!

Convenience Care

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

Improper Use of Antibiotics: Don’t take the risk

Top 10 Tips for Going to an Urgent Care

Evolution of Illness

Why Wait to See Your Regular Doctor When the Urgent Care is Right There?

How To Use Nose Sprays Correctly

Nasal sprays are the preferred treatment for allergies based on guidelines, but I hear many reasons why people don’t use them. Some simply think they don’t work well. Others have gotten nosebleeds. Some simply don’t like the bad taste they get from using them. If used incorrectly you’ll taste medicine or feel a drip down the back of your throat. Nose sprays won’t work as well if used incorrectly and they might even traumatize the nose, leading to nosebleeds – and that traumatizes some kids and many of their parents. Using them correctly can help alleviate symptoms of allergies and allow kids to enjoy the great outdoors!

Start by using the right nose spray – or sprays

There are many nose sprays out there, and you need to be sure you’re using the correct product for your needs.

First you’ll need to know that allergy symptoms are caused by histamines. In a person who is sensitive to pollen, dust mites, or animal dander, histamine is released in response to exposure. The histamine can cause swelling of the nose or eyes, watery eyes, runny nose, and itch. Allergy treatments either focus on limiting allergen exposure, preventing the histamine release, or blocking the histamine response.

All of the nose sprays used for allergy management (except saline) are listed on the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology ALLERGY & ASTHMA MEDICATION GUIDE.

Saline

Saline is great for the nose. I actually prefer saline washes over saline sprays, but the sprays are good too. See the 2nd video below for why I love saline washes.

Saline helps to remove the pollen from the nose to limit the exposure time. It also helps to shrink swollen nasal tissues, which makes it easier to breathe, and loosens mucus to help get it out.

Saline is just salt water, so if you want something natural, this is it!

Many parents ask how often to use saline sprays, and it really can be used whenever it’s needed. For prevention of allergies, use it after going outside and before bed during pollen seasons. If you’re using it because of a stuffy nose, you can use it several times a day.

Saline can be used even in babies. If you use saline spray or saline drops they can be followed with blowing the nose (or using an aspirator).

I love to use saline first followed by a good blow (or suction) to clear out the nose. After the nose is cleared, if that’s not sufficient to last the whole day, the other sprays are more effective. Saline doesn’t have medicine to last several hours, but can be used before medicated sprays to help them be more effective.

Mast Cell Inhibitor

Cromolyn sodium is a mast cell inhibitor that can be used for allergies. It prevents the release of histamine, which causes allergic symptoms.

Cromolyn sodium must be started 1-2 weeks before pollen season and continued daily to prevent seasonal allergy symptoms. It doesn’t work as well as corticosteroid nasal sprays, so I generally don’t recommend cromolyn.

These sprays can be used in children as young as 2 years of age.

The biggest drawback is that it is recommended every 4 hours, up to 4 times a day. This is really hard to keep up every day during allergy season.

Antihistamine

If you don’t want the dry mouth or sleepiness associated with an oral antihistamine, you can try a nose spray antihistamine. Both oral and nasal antihistamines block the histamine from causing the typical allergy symptoms.

Antihistamine nasal sprays are approved for use down to 5 years of age.

Corticosteroid sprays tend to work better in the long run, but antihistamines are effective more quickly, so are good for rapid relief.

Antihistamine nose sprays are only needed once or twice a day, but since most kids like oral medicines better than nose sprays and you shouldn’t duplicate with both, I generally recommend that antihistamines be given orally.

Decongestant

Decongestant sprays are popular because they work quickly, but I rarely recommend them. The most common time I use them is to help get things stuck in the nose out.

Oxymetazoline hydrochloride (Afrin, Dristan, Sinex) and phenylephrine hydrochloride (Neo-Synephrine) are some examples of nasal spray decongestants. They are available over the counter.

Decongestant sprays shrink swollen blood vessels and tissues in your nose that cause congestion.

They can be used temporarily in kids over 6 years old, but if you use them longer than 3 days they actually cause more congestion.

Steroid

Corticosteroid nasal sprays can be used in kids over 2 years of age and are the preferred treatment in allergy guidelines because they work well.

These can be used once or twice a day year-round or just as needed for allergy relief. It’s best to start them 2-3 weeks before allergy season starts because it does take time for them to be most effective. If you forget to use them until symptoms start, it may take several days to feel benefit.

Corticosteroid nasal sprays are available over the counter. There are many brands, including less expensive store brands. They have various steroid active ingredients, but all work pretty well.

I generally recommend the non-fluticasone brands for kids. This is not because of the effectiveness of fluticasone. It works. But it smells flowery and many kids will resist it due to the smell.

Nasal steroids are approved for use to help allergies, but they also decrease the amount of mucus from other causes, such as the common cold.

If you’re worried about the side effects of steroids, know that the risk is very low with nasal corticosteroids. The dose is extremely small and nasal corticosteroids are considered to be safe for prolonged use, even in kids.

Because they work so effectively and are well tolerated, nasal steroids are my preferred allergy medicine. They can be used with antihistamines if needed.

Anticholinergic

Ipratropium is the ingredient in anticholinergic nasal sprays. It helps to decrease a runny nose by stopping the production of mucus. One downside to ipratropium is that it doesn’t help congestion or sneezing very well.

Ipratropium nasal spray can be used over 5 years of age for up to 3 weeks at a time for runny noses from allergies and colds.

It is available by prescription only and I’ve never personally prescribed it. I personally think it has too many limitations and few benefits.

Allergen blocker

I have to admit that I’ve never even heard of this before, but I saw it on the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology site referenced above.

Alzair produces a protective gel-like barrier that evenly coats the nasal membranes and acts to block inhaled allergens within the nasal cavity. It’s available by prescription and looks like it’s approved for kids 8 and over.

One downside is that it needs to be used every time you blow your nose, so I don’t see it useful for school aged kids who have to go to the nurse for all treatments.

If anyone has used it, I’d love to hear your comments below about how it works!

Using nose sprays – it’s all about technique

Most people use nose sprays incorrectly, even if they pick the right one.

It’s not intuitive how to use them correctly. We tend to aim towards the center of the nose (which leads to nosebleeds) and inhale too much (which leads to icky drip down the throat).

Getting ready

Blow your nose. Or even better, rinse it with saline!

Take off the cap. You’d be surprised how many people skip this step.

Shake the bottle before each use. Think of Italian salad dressing. If you don’t shake it, you won’t get the good stuff.

You will need to be sure the tube inside the bottle has the liquid in it if it’s a new bottle or hasn’t been used in awhile. Much like when you get a new pump soap, you need to pump a few times to get results. Once you see the mist come out, you know the medicine’s ready to spray out.

Positioning

Be sure to keep the bottle fairly upright during the spraying. See the 1st video below for why this is important.

Many people tilt their head back when using nose sprays. Don’t. You’ll get more drip down your throat and less effective spray onto the nasal tissues.

Look slightly down.

Put the tip of the spray bottle into the nose and aim toward the back of the eye on the same side of the head. Don’t ever aim toward the center of the nose. This causes nosebleeds. Use the right hand to spray the left nostril and the left hand to spray the right nostril to help get the proper positioning.

Spraying

When the tip of the spray bottle is in your nose properly, squeeze the bottle.

Take the bottle out of your nose before releasing the squeeze. If it’s still in your nose, it will suck up whatever’s in there… including germs that can grow in the bottle.

Don’t feel like you need to inhale the stuff to your brain. The medicine works in the nose. Sniffing too much will make the medicine bypass your nasal tissue and go to the back of your throat. This misses the opportunity for the medicine to work where it’s supposed to work and it’s an icky feeling in the throat.

Sniff only enough after the spray to keep it from dripping out.

Finishing up

Wipe the top of the bottle clean before putting the lid back on.

Store the bottle out of reach of children and keep it out of the direct sunlight.

For more

I’ve always said that one day I’d make videos of how to use nose sprays and nose wash systems correctly. I know this post is about nose sprays, but if your nose is plugged with mucus, the sprays just won’t work.

Nasopure has a number of videos on how to use nose washes that I frequently recommend. I don’t get paid at all from Nasopure — I just love the bottle and their website resources. And they’re even made in Kansas City!

Until now I haven’t found a great video on how to use nose sprays. Thanks to Dr. Mark Helm, I’ve finally found a great video for how to use nasal sprays.

I’m off the hook for making videos!

I like this video from AbrahamThePharmacist. He gives great information with a fun style.

I’ve shared the video below many times because it shows just how well a good nose wash can work. I warn parents that most kids don’t love it as much as this girl does. It usually involves a lot of crying and fighting in my experience, but it is so worth it! I don’t know where she got the tip for the syringe, but I’d recommend the Nasopure bottle as shown above.

And finally, for those who think their child is too young to do a nose wash, check out this cutie! She’s in several of the Nasopure videos but she shows perfect technique here!

Meningitis Basics: What you need to know.

Meningitis occurs when a virus or bacteria causes inflammation of our brain or spinal cord. We use several different vaccines to prevent a few types of meningitis, but it’s all very confusing. Recent commercials have raised questions about what these vaccines are and if they’re needed.

Today we’ll go over what meningitis is and what types of germs cause it. Next time I’ll discuss some of the new meningitis vaccines in more detail.

What is meningitis?

Symptoms of MeningitisBoth viruses and bacteria can cause meningitis, but not everyone with these germs gets meningitis. Most people have less severe symptoms when they get these infections.

Not everyone gets all the symptoms listed below when they have meningitis. Some of these symptoms are common to many less serious infections, but if your child has these symptoms and appears more sick than normal, he or she should be evaluated immediately.

Symptoms of meningitis include:
  • fever
  • stiff neck
  • body aches and pains
  • sensitivity to light
  • mental status changes
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • rash
  • poor feeding

Viral meningitis

Viruses are the most common cause of meningitis. Thankfully viral meningitis tends to be less severe than bacterial meningitis.

Most people recover on their own from viral meningitis. As with many infections, young infants and people who have immune deficiencies are most at risk.

There are many types of viruses that can cause meningitis. It’s likely that you’ve had many of these or have been vaccinated against them.

Non-polio enterovirus

The most common virus to cause meningitis is one from the non-polio enterovirus family.

Fever, runny nose, cough, rash, and blisters in the mouth are all symptoms that kids can get from this type of virus.

Most kids are infected with this type of virus at some point. Adults are less susceptible, and can even have the virus without symptoms.

There is no routine vaccine given for non-polio virus strains.

MM(R)V

Measles, mumps and chicken pox viruses can cause meningitis.

We vaccinate against these typically at 12-15 months of age, so it is uncommon to see these diseases. The MMR and varicella vaccines can be given separately or as MMRV. (Rubella is the “R” and can lead to brain damage in a fetus, but does not cause meningitis.)

Influenza

Influenza can cause meningitis, which is one of the reasons we recommend vaccinating yearly against flu starting at 6 months of age.

Herpesviruses

Herpesviruses can cause meningitis. Despite the name, most of these are not sexually transmitted.

This family of viruses includes Epstein-Barr virus,which leads to mono most commonly. Cold sores from herpes simplex viruses are also in this group. Chicken pox (or varicella-zoster virus) is another of these blistering viruses.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacteria that lead to meningitis can quickly kill, so prompt treatment is important. If you’ve been exposed to bacterial meningitis, you may be treated as well, but remember that most people who get these bacteria do not get meningitis.

Most people who get bacterial meningitis recover, but some have lasting damage. Hearing loss, brain damage, learning disabilities, and loss of limbs can result from various types of meningitis.

Causes of bacterial meningitis vary by age group:

Newborns

Newborns can be infected during pregnancy and delivery as well as after birth. They tend to get really sick very quickly, so this is one age group we take any increased risk of infection very seriously.

Bacteria that tend to infect newborns include Group B Streptococcus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes, and Escherichia coli.

Mothers are routinely screened for Group B Strep during the last trimester of pregnancy. They are not treated until delivery because this bacteria does not cause the mother any problems and is so common that it could recur before delivery if it’s treated earlier. This could expose the baby at the time of delivery. If a mother does not get adequately treated with antibiotics before the baby is born, the baby may have tests run to look for signs of infection or might be monitored in the hospital a bit more closely.

Once the mother’s water breaks, we time how long it has been because this opens the womb up for germs to infect the baby. If the baby isn’t born during the safe timeframe, your delivering physician or midwife might suggest antibiotics. After delivery your baby might have tests done to look for signs of infection or might be monitored more closely in the nursery.

It is very important that sick people stay away from newborns as much as possible. Everyone should wash their hands well before handling a newborn.

Babies and children

As children leave the newborn period, their risks change. Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) are the bacteria that cause disease in this age group.

Thankfully we have vaccines against many of these bacteria. Infants should be vaccinated against S. pneumoniae and H. influenzae starting at 2 months of age. (Note: H. influenzae is not related at all to the influenza virus.)

Vaccines against N. meningitidis are available, but are not routinely given to infants at this time. High risk children should receive the vaccine starting at 2 months of age, but it is generally given at 11 years of age in the US.

Teens and young adults

Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae are the risks in this age group.

Thankfully most teens in the US have gotten the S. pneumoniae vaccine as infants so that risk is lower than in years past.

Tweens and are routinely given a vaccine against A, C, W, and Y strains of N. meningitis. A vaccine against meningitis B is recommended for high risk people and can be given to lower risk teens. This will be discussed further in my next blog.

Older adults

Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), group B Streptococcus and Listeria monocytogenes affect the elderly

Talk to your parents to be sure they’re vaccinated and follow the vaccine recommendations for yourself too. Vaccines are not just for kids!

‘NI, Leptomeningitis purulenta cerebralis. Alfred Kast’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

 

Swimmer’s Ear

Not all ear infections are created equally. Swimmer’s ear differs from a middle ear infection. It is an inflammation of the skin lining the ear canal and is most common in older children and teens. Middle ear infections (otitis media) are caused by pus behind the eardrum and are most common in infants and younger children.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear (AKA otitis externa) gets its name because it is commonly caused by water in the ear canal making a good environment for bacteria to grow, causing an infection of the skin.

Water can come from many sources, including lakes, pools, bath tubs, and even sweat, so not only swimmers get swimmer’s ear.

Increasing the risk of swimmer’s ear:

Anything that damages the skin lining the ear canal can predispose to a secondary infection, much like having a scraped knee can lead to an infection of the skin on your knee. Avoid putting anything in your ears, since it can scratch the skin of the ear canal. This includes anything solid to clean wax out of the ear.

Excess earwax can trap water, so cleaning with a safe method can help prevent infection. A little wax is good though — it actually helps prevent bacterial growth. For more on earwax, please see Ear Wax: Good and Bad.

Yes, it sometimes hurts!

Swimmer’s ear can cause intense pain. Sometimes it starts as a mild irritation or itch, but pain worsens if untreated. It typically hurts more if the ear is pulled back or if the little bump at the front of the ear canal is pushed down toward the canal.

Ear buds (for a music player) or hearing aides can be very uncomfortable (and increase the risk of getting swimmer’s ear due to canal irritation).

Other symptoms:

Sometimes there is drainage of clear fluid or pus from the canal.

If the canal swells significantly or if pus fills the canal, hearing will be affected.

More severe cases can cause redness extending to the outer ear, fever, and swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck.

Swimmer’s ear can lead to dizziness or ringing in the ear.

Prevention of swimmer’s ear:

Controlling wax

If your child has excessive wax buildup, talk with his doctor about how often to clean the wax. Wax does help keep your ears clean, so you don’t want to clear it too much!

Keep out!

Never put anything solid into the ear canal.

Drying ears

Dry the ear canals when water gets in.

  • Tilt the head so the ear is down and hold a towel at the edge of the canal.
  • Use a hair dryer on a cool setting several inches away from the ear to dry it.
  • If kids get frequent ear infections or are in untreated water (such as a lake), use over the counter ear drops made to help clean the canal. You can buy them at a pharmacy or make them yourself with white vinegar and rubbing alcohol in a 1 to 1 ratio. Put 3-4 drops in each ear after swimming. The acid of the vinegar and the antibacterial properties of the alcohol help to clear bacteria, and the alcohol evaporates to help dry the canal.
  • DO NOT use these drops if there are tubes or a hole in the eardrum, if pus is draining, or if the ear itches or hurts.
Avoiding swimming when needed

If your child has a scratch in the ear or a current swimmer’s ear infection, avoid swimming for 3-5 days to allow the skin to heal.

Avoid bubble baths and other irritating liquids that might get into ear canals.

If there’s tubes…

If your child has tubes placed for recurrent middle ear infections, talk with your ENT about ear protection during swimming.

The use of ear plugs for swimming with tubes has been controversial, but are generally not needed. Dr. Burton discusses this in 5 Fantastical Ear Tube Myths .

Treating swimmer’s ear:

Pain control

If you think your child has swimmer’s ear, start with pain control at home with acetaminophen or ibuprofen per package directions.

Heating pads to the outer ear often help, but do not put any heated liquids into the ear.

Visit your doctor

Most often swimmer’s ear is not an emergency, but symptoms can worsen if not treated with prescription ear drops within a few days.

Bring your child to the office for an exam, diagnosis, and treatment as indicated. Most can go to their usual physician during during normal business hours if you can get adequate pain control at home.

When to be seen immediately

If the pain is severe, redness extends onto the face or behind the ear, the ear protrudes from the head, or there are other concerning symptoms, your child should be seen immediately at their primary care office or another urgent/emergent care setting.

Ear wicks

Occasionally we will remove debris from the canal or insert a wick to help the drops get past the inflamed/swollen canal.

Never attempt this at home unless you’ve been instructed on how to do it safely!

Prescription ear drops and oral medicine

The prescription ear drops may include an antibiotic (to kill the bacteria), a steroid (to decrease inflammation and pain), an acid (to kill bacteria), an antiseptic (to kill the bacteria), or a combination of these.  They are generally used 2-3 times/day.

Have your child lie on his or her side to put the drops in the ear. He or she should remain on that side for several minutes before getting up or changing sides to allow the medicine to stay in the ear. They can use a cotton ball or tissue to collect and dripping when they get up.

Symptoms generally improve after 24 hours and the infection clears within a week.

Oral antibiotics are usually not required unless the infection extends beyond the ear canal.

If an infection causes more itch than pain or does not clear with initial treatment, we might consider a fungal infection. This requires an anti-fungal medication.

No swimming until the infection clears.

Swimming just adds insult to injury. Let the skin heal before getting it soaked in the pool again!

Special circumstances

Kids (and adults) with diabetes or other immune deficiencies are more likely to get severely sick with any infection.

Visit your doctor early if you suspect a problem.

Summer Penile Syndrome

Did you know there’s a name for the super swollen male parts from bug bites? Actually two names: Summer Penile Syndrome and Lion Mane’s Penis. Doctors might even call it seasonal acute hypersensitivity reaction. If you’ve ever seen it, you know it can be quite impressive.

What is summer penile syndrome?

Summer penile syndrome is a fairly common concern during the summer months. It’s usually due to a chigger bite on the sensitive skin of the penis or scrotum. You can often find a small bug bite near the center of the swelling.

They can itch like crazy, but usually don’t interfere with urinating.

Despite the significant swelling, there isn’t usually much pain, only itching. Unless there’s a secondary infection, there won’t be any fever.

What is a chigger?

Chiggers are a type of mite, which is an arachnid in the same family as spiders and ticks. They are also called harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mites, or red bugs. Chiggers are so small they often go unnoticed until several hours after they attach to our skin. They can attach even under clothing, and the most common places that we notice chigger bites are in the areas of our pants.

Chiggers live in moist, grassy and wooded areas. They are commonly found in the warm summer months.

Adult chiggers don’t bite. It’s the larvae that cause itchy problems. The larvae are red, orange, yellow, or straw-colored, and no more than 0.3 millimeters long.

File-Chigger bite
Chigger. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-Chigger_bite.svg 
After crawling onto the skin, the larvae inject digestive enzymes into the skin that break down skin cells. They do not actually bite the host even though the bumps are called chigger bites. They form a hole in the skin called a stylostome. Their saliva goes into deep skin layers, which results in severe irritation and swelling.

People usually start to itch within a few hours and often scratch the feeding chiggers away. A hot shower with plenty of soap will kill chiggers and prevent them from finishing their meal, so showering after being in grassy or wooded areas can help prevent deeper reactions.

The good news is that in the US, chiggers are not known to carry diseases.

Prevention

Even though they don’t cause disease, chigger bites are something to avoid because they can cause significant itching for weeks.

Bug sprays with DEET will deter the chiggers. DEET is approved for use in children over 2 months of age.

Clothing can be treated with permethrin to avoid ticks and chiggers. Permethrin can be purchased at sporting goods stores to pre-treat your clothing. It should not be used directly on skin. Once dried into the clothing, permethrin will last for about six washings. You can also treat your shoes, which makes a lot of sense since chiggers are usually found in the grass and crawl up onto your skin.

Even untreated clothing can help a little if you don’t have time to pre-treat with permethrin. Wear long sleeves and long pants. Be sure to tuck the pant legs into your socks so they can’t enter from the bottom leg hole.

For more on bug sprays, including citronella, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus and more, see the EPAs information on registered and unregistered products. You can even use this handy tool to find the right product for your needs.

How do you treat chigger bites?

Much like any bug bite, control of the itch is important. If kids scratch any itch, it can become secondarily infected from the break in the skin allowing germs in.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are used for allergic reactions. We commonly use them for seasonal allergies, but they can help most allergy reactions.

Bug bites itch when our bodies react to the saliva injected into our skin with histamine. Histamine is our body’s allergic response and it itches. If you aren’t allergic to the bite, you won’t itch from it. This is the way we react to allergies, which is why we get itchy eyes and noses with allergies to pollen.

Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is a short acting antihistamine that can help control allergic reactions, but tends to make kids tired or wired. It also only lasts a few hours, which can require frequent dosing.

I don’t like topical antihistamines, which are often sold to treat bug bites. I worry that kids will get too much of the medicine when it is applied to each bite. It’s a low risk, but still a risk. Just because they aren’t taking it by mouth doesn’t mean it isn’t absorbed. Children using a topical antihistamine for an extended time over large areas of the skin (especially areas with broken skin) may be at higher risk, especially if they also are using other diphenhydramine products taken by mouth or applied to the skin.

I am a fan of using an oral long-acting antihistamine, such as cetirizine or loratadine, to treat bug bites. Most kids with one bug bite have many. One dose of an oral antihistamine helps to control the overall histamine reaction, making each bite itch less.

Antibiotics

Despite the significant swelling, these usually do not require prescription antibiotics.

If your child has open areas from scratching the skin, you should keep the area clean and consider using a topical antibiotic ointment to help prevent infection.

Steroids

Over the counter topical hydrocortisone is a very low dose steroid. It can be used on insect bites to help stop the itch.

Stronger steroids that require prescriptions are occasionally used, but you will need to see your physician to discuss the risks and benefits of prescription steroids.

Oatmeal baths

Soaking in an oatmeal bath might help the itching. It works very well for dry skin conditions and sunburn relief as well.

You can buy commercially made oatmeal bath products or you can grind regular plain oats to make it fine enough that it dissolves in bath water. Test a small amount in a cup of water to see if it’s finely ground enough before putting 1 cup of oats into the bath water.

Some people have even made a paste of oats and applied it directly to the itchy skin for relief.

Baking soda

Another kitchen remedy for bug bite itch relief is baking soda. Mix a pinch of baking soda with a few drops of water to make a paste. Put this paste on the bites. Reapply as needed.

Ice or cool cloth

One more kitchen treatment is ice. Many kids won’t tolerate this one, but if they can’t tolerate an ice pack placed over clothing, you can try applying a cool wet washcloth directly to the skin.

When should you see your doctor?

If your child has any of the following symptoms, talk with your doctor.

  • Trouble urinating.
  • Pain or itch not controlled with the above measures.
  • Fever.

Fear has big eyes
By Robbie Grubbs from Houston (What????) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons