New back to school recommendations for strep throat!

Many years ago I heard about research showing that throat cultures clear within 12 hours after the first dose of antibiotic for strep throat. I’ve been waiting since then for a change to our recommendation that kids must stay home from school for 24 hours after starting antibiotics. Guess what? The new Red Book (an infectious disease book from the American Academy of Pediatrics) is out and the back to school recommendations for strep throat have changed! This can help many parents get back to work when their kids can return to school and daycare earlier. But it doesn’t mean you should rush in to demand antibiotics for every sore throat!

Redbook return to school strep guidelines, 2018.
Red Book return to school strep guidelines, 2018.

I have summarized the Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Group A Streptococcal Pharyngitis: 2012 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America previously. These official guidelines have not been updated, but the Red Book represents the AAP official recommendations.

What is Strep throat?

Strep throat is not just any sore throat. Many viruses can cause sore throats but strep throat is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, also known as Streptococcus pyogenes.

Strep throat is not common in kids under 3 years. The incidence of strep throat peaks in young childhood and is less common in teens and adults.

A strep test is needed to diagnose strep throat in kids. Physicians and other healthcare providers can use Centor Criteria for adults, but a clinical diagnosis alone is not recommended in children.

Strep throat typically causes a sore throat, fever, swollen tonsils, and swollen lymph nodes (gland) under the jaw. Some kids will get a sandpapery rash on their trunk. When this happens, it is called scarlet fever. I also see a significant number of kids who get a stomach ache and vomiting with strep.

Pos strep
Strep throat sometimes causes white patches on the tonsils. This is called exudate.
Streptococcal pharyngitis
Red spots on the roof of the mouth is considered very specific for strep throat.

Does strep throat need to be treated?

Most parents and kids want antibiotic treatment so that the miserable symptoms of strep go away faster, but do we need to treat strep?

You might be surprised, but antibiotics are not prescribed to treat strep throat symptoms. Antibiotics are used to prevent serious complications from the strep bacteria. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can be used to treat the fever and sore throat symptoms. School aged children, teens, and adults can also use throat lozenges for sore throats. (Do not use these in kids who are still at risk of choking.)

So the simple answer is we don’t always need to treat strep with antibiotics. In the days before antibiotics, most people got better. Even now there are some people who don’t go to a clinic when they’re sick, so they recover on their own.

Use antibiotics wisely

There are a lot of reasons to use antibiotics only when necessary.

One major reason is to help delay antibiotic resistance.

Some people have allergic reactions or side effects to antibiotics, so we should not use them lightly.

They also can increase total healthcare costs. Although penicillin and amoxicillin (which are recommended for strep throat) are inexpensive, treating strep throat does increase healthcare costs. The sheer number of illnesses that present to clinics for evaluation, the cost of testing, and the cost of the treatments can all add up. Of course, returning to work a day earlier can make an impact on our economy as well.

If your child has symptoms not characteristic for strep and is not otherwise high risk, you can monitor and treat for a few days at home.

But antibiotics make us feel better faster, right?

Antibiotics tend to shorten the symptoms by about 16 hours.

They have been shown to prevent serious consequences of strep infections, but those are rare, so the risk/benefit ratio may not support treating every case of strep. (Though I still do treat strep when I see it.)

Look at risk/benefit ratio for all treatments

If you want to read an example of the risks/benefits of treating strep throat, see this (slightly technical) case report.

Remember that this report simply highlights one case, it cannot be generalized to everyone with strep throat. It shows how doctors work through the risks and benefits with everything we treat. We don’t always state things like this out loud, but they go through our mind as we develop treatment plans.

It’s common in medicine to have case reviews such as this. Any one case does not change our treatment guidelines, but they can help us start to understand issues. They often serve to initiate further studies.

Are there risks to not treating?

Untreated Strep infections can lead to complications.

The character Beth in the classic book “Little Women” died of heart complications after scarlet fever.

(If nostalgia hits you, you can get the entire series of the March family on Kindle for less than a dollar!)

Complications from untreated strep can include tonsil abscesses, ear infections, sinus infections, arthritis, heart damage, and kidney damage. While some of these can be severe, thankfully the more severe complications are rare, even without treatment.

There is also a condition called PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders) that some experts think is related to strep. This can involve the sudden onset or worsening of tic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, mood changes, and change in quality of school work. Throat swabs can be normal, but a blood test can help to identify a recent strep exposure. Testing is not recommended for everyone with tics or OCD, but talk to your pediatrician if symptoms start out of the blue and you’re concerned.

Don’t let the new recommendations make you rush in…

Strep throat is rarely an emergency. Don’t rush to the ER after business hours to have your child checked as soon as you notice symptoms. You can use pain relievers as well as cold drinks, smoothies and popsicles to manage the symptoms at home initially. Just because the back to school recommendations for strep throat allow return 12 hours after antibiotics start, coming in too soon might not help in the long run.

About the testing available:

The test commonly used to identify strep is most accurate after symptoms have been there for awhile. The rapid Strep test for the presence of the strep bacteria about 97% of the time. A culture done at the same time may grow the strep bacteria in a few days, but antibiotics are not recommended until either the rapid test or culture is positive, so you’re not getting a head start on antibiotics if the initial rapid test is negative.

Because the rapid strep test looks at the presence of strep , strep testing just tells you the germ is there. The clinical symptoms of strep disease is why you need treatment.  Up to 30% of school age children have strep in their throat. The strep is not necessarily causing disease without symptoms of strep. These symptoms include rapid onset of sore throat, headache, tummy ache and fever, without cough and runny nose.  This is the tricky part and the reason you need your pediatrician to determine if testing is needed.
Do not use telehealth to get your sore throat treated.

In children it is not recommended to diagnose strep throat without a throat swab test. This should be done in a medical clinic to avoid inaccurate testing.

Treating early in the course might diminish the opportunity for your body to fight strep off the next time it’s exposed. Yes, treating may allow a return to work, school or daycare in 12 hours, but if you can prevent the next occurrence (of course no guarantees…) wouldn’t you want to?

When should you not test or treat?

Kids under 3 years old

Strep throat is not common in kids under 3 , so it’s not recommended to test them.

I admit that if an older sibling or caregiver has strep and they have strep symptoms, I will test 2-3 year olds.  The recommendation is to not bother. Even if they have strep, treating does not tend to alter their course. Kids in this age group tend to not develop the severe consequences of strep like older kids, even when not treated.

Viral symptoms

Although both viruses and strep bacteria can cause fever and sore throat, there are clues that it is not strep. When strep carriers get sick, they can have a false positive throat culture. The strep that shows on testing is not the cause of their symptoms and leads to over treatment.

If there is a cough or runny nose, the sore throat is most likely a viral illness. A strep test is not recommended.

When there are blisters in the mouth or a characteristic hand, foot, mouth rash, they have a viral illness. A strep test is not recommended.

Recent strep

Because the rapid strep test looks at antigens the body makes in response to strep and not the bacteria itself, recent strep can affect rapid strep testing. The antigen can remain in the throat for a time after treatment, so a strep culture is recommended for several weeks after treatment of strep throat.

It is not recommended to do a throat culture after treatment unless a person is high risk for complications, such as rheumatic fever.

contacts of someone with strep

It isn’t recommended to test people who have been exposed to strep unless they have symptoms. If they do not have symptoms, a positive test is more likely to be a falsely positive (not true) test. It could lead to unnecessary antibiotics.

If a sibling over 3 years of age develops symptoms, it is recommended to test and not just treat.

Pets?

Pets do not get strep, so no need to swab your pet!

Why not just test every sore throat?

Studies show that 1 in 4 kids can have strep in their throat at any given time. They are simply carriers, but not truly infected with strep. Contrary to popular belief, strep carriers are not likely to spread strep infections.

If a strep carrier has a viral illness, they can have a positive test but the strep is not the cause of their illness. Antibiotics are not needed for this at all. A positive test leads to using antibiotics that are not needed, which can increase the risk of side effects and allergic reactions. They give a false sense of security of treatment, but if it’s a viral illness, antibiotics are not treating anything. Kids can be sent back to daycare or school while still contagious simply because they’re “being treated.”

“My child always has a negative rapid test but the culture is positive. Can’t we just treat?”

There are many reasons this can happen.
One of the reasons is that the child is a strep carrier, so has no strep disease. In this situation, there aren’t antigens to make the rapid test positive, but the culture will grow the bacteria. If you recall from above, carriers do not need to be treated with antibiotics in most cases. I often find that these kids continue to feel sick several hours after starting antibiotics for strep. Most kids with strep feel better really quickly after antibiotics are started!
It’s also possible that the child is brought in for testing early in the course of illness each time so the antigens have not yet developed. This is one reason to not rush in at the first sign of possible strep. Let the body do its thing first.

My back to school recommendations for strep throat:

If your child has some of the symptoms of strep (sore throat, fever, tender bumps in the neck, vomiting, or rash) consider strep throat.

Symptoms of typical viral illnesses make strep less likely. These might include runny nose, cough, red goopy eyes, or diarrhea. No testing is recommended.

It can be difficult to tell if a runny nose from allergies despite the strep throat or if the runny nose is part of the viral illness that includes a sore throat, so if in doubt, bring your child in for evaluation. The doctor can determine if testing should be done. Do not use telehealth for this. I recommend seeing your primary care physician during normal business hours.

If there is strep throat, penicillin or amoxicillin are the preferred treatments unless there is documented allergy.

Your child may return to school 12 hours after the first dose of antibiotic if they are otherwise well. (If they are not feeling great, they likely have something else going on!)

Thank you!

Thanks to Dr. Kathy Cain of Topeka Pediatrics for some helpful editing tips!

 

Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a very common illness, but there is a lot of confusion about it. It is caused by several different viruses in the enterovirus group. It can make kids (and some adults) miserable, but like most viruses we don’t have a specific treatment to fix it. There are things we can do to help kids stay more comfortable and to decrease spread.

Daycares in my area often make unreasonable demands of when to let kids return, which makes me aware that they aren’t aware of how it’s spread and how to control the spread as much as possible. Do they realize that many adults can have the virus and spread the disease without having any symptoms themselves?

How can you recognize hand, foot, and mouth?

Hand, foot, and mouth disease can look different in different people.

Of course the name gives a clue: there’s often a rash on the hands and feet, and in the mouth. If there is  a classic rash, you’ll know what you’re dealing with. The rash can look like red spots or blisters, classically on the palms and soles, but it can extend up the arms and legs. I often call it hand, foot, mouth, and butt disease because bumps in the diaper region are common. You might not recognize the blisters unless you can get a good look in their mouth to see blisters on the gums, tongue, or throat.

Some kids will be fussy and eat less than normal.

Many, but not all, will have a fever. Don’t fear fever.

This photo shows typical blister-type lesions around the mouth of a toddler. Notice the drool at the chin. Many kids have these blisters on their throat, which makes it painful to swallow. They often refuse to eat or drink – or even swallow their saliva!

Hand Foot Mouth Disease

Are there any serious complications?

Most kids recover completely within a week or so, but some can have a more significant illness.

Some kids refuse to eat or drink and may require hospitalization for dehydration.

A rare complication is viral meningitis, an inflammation around the brain. Symptoms can include fever, headache, stiff neck, and irritability. Viral meningitis might require hospitalization to help with comfort measures or to treat with antibiotics while ruling out bacterial meningitis.

Even less commonly children can get encephalitis or a polio-like paralysis. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. Symptoms include fever, seizures, change in behavior, confusion and disorientation, and related neurological signs depending on which part of the brain is affected.

One consequence I tend to see every few years is fingernails and/or toenails falling off weeks after recovery from hand, foot, and mouth disease. While this is not serious and the nails eventually grow back normally, it can be distressing to parents. Simply knowing that this might happen can hopefully stop your worry before it starts!

How is it spread?

Most enterovirus infections in the US are during the summer and fall. Enterovirus infections are common worldwide. Most kids have been infected by the time they’re school aged. Pets do not get infected with enteroviruses.

The virus easily spreads from person to person. This happens through contact with saliva, nose and throat secretions, fluid in blisters, or stool of an infected person. The virus can spread from mother to infant prenatally and in the newborn period.

Enteroviruses may survive on environmental surfaces for periods long enough to allow transmission from fomites.

Respiratory tract shedding usually only occurs for 1-3 weeks, but the virus can exist in the stool for months after infection. Careful hand washing after all diaper changes is essential. In most cases it is not possible to keep kids home from daycare until they are “no longer contagious.”

Infection and viral shedding can occur without signs of clinical illness, especially in adults. This means many parents and daycare providers can unknowingly spread the virus to susceptible infants and children.

The incubation period (time from infection until symptoms show) for enterovirus infections is typically 3 to 6 days.

What treatment can be given?

Because this is caused by a virus, there is no specific medicine that is needed to make it go away.

Fluids are very important. Some kids refuse to swallow due to pain, so they are at risk of dehydration. Giving pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help to decrease the pain and improve how well they will drink. Offer cold drinks, smoothies, and popsicles if age appropriate.

Older children and adults can use throat lozenges or mouth sprays that numb the pain.

Magic Mouthwash

A mixture of liquid diphenhydramine (a common antihistamine) and a liquid antacid, such as Maalox, in a one-to-one ratio can help alleviate pain. Give the amount that equals the diphenhydramine dose per weight.

For example, if a child’s dose is 2.5 ml of diphenhydramine, mix 2.5 ml diphenhydramine with 2.5 ml of the liquid antacid. If a child can swish, gargle, and spit the mixture, it can help numb the sores. When younger children swallow the mixture, it may also help if it coats the sores in the mouth adequately.

Control measures to prevent hand, foot, and mouth disease

Hand washing, especially after diaper changing, is important in decreasing the spread of enteroviruses.

Don’t share foods or drinks. Avoid contaminated utensils.

Wash toys and disinfect surfaces regularly.

Chlorination treatment of drinking water and swimming pools may help prevent transmission.

Can kids get this more than once?

Since there are several different viruses that cause hand, foot, and mouth disease, it is possible to get it more than once. Keep washing those hands, toys, and surfaces!

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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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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The flu shot doesn’t work

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

How do they know it isn’t working?

Influenza can be deadly.

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

But they’re not in the hospital.

They’re not dying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot fears…

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

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

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

Prevention’s the best medicine.

Learn 12 TIMELY TIPS FOR COLD AND FLU VIRUS PREVENTION.

Get your flu vaccine. #fluvaccine #vaccineswork
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It’s not the flu!

I was at the gym today and an otherwise great instructor who seems to know a lot about health was sharing incorrect information about the flu with the class of about 40 people. She said that she had received several texts from other instructors asking her to cover their classes because they were vomiting. Then she went on to say that many at first thought it was food poisoning, but it’s spreading like illness, so it’s the flu, not food poisoning. She made a big deal that the flu is here. Is vomiting from the flu?

She’s only partially right.

Yes…

There’s a stomach bug going around.

It’s not food poisoning.

Influenza is in town.

But this extreme vomiting is not “the flu”

vomiting from the flu
Vomiting can be associated with influenza, but is not the main symptom.

The flu causes predominantly fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches for many days. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but those aren’t usually the predominant symptoms. And the flu doesn’t cause just a few hours of extreme vomiting like we’re seeing these days.

Why do I care if people call this stomach bug “flu”?

Runny nose is one of the symptoms of influenza.

The biggest reason I care is that it leads people to make other incorrect assumptions and to get the wrong treatments.

I hear all the time that people had the flu the year they got a flu shot, so they don’t want to get it anymore.

When probed about their illness, it’s usually not consistent with the flu. It was either a cold and cough or a stomach virus.

If they think a common cold or vomiting is from the flu, they’re mistaken.

They need to know that this isn’t the flu.
Cough is one of the most common symptoms of influenza, along with fever, sore throat, and body aches.

Common colds and vomiting are not prevented with the flu shot.

The flu shot has nothing to do with protecting against most cases of vomiting and diarrhea or most upper respiratory tract infections.

Of course there are people who got the flu shot (or FluMist when it was available) who did come down with the flu. They had a positive flu test and symptoms were consistent with the flu. But if they get influenza after the vaccine they tend to have milder symptoms. They tend to not end up in the hospital or dead if they’ve had the vaccine. Yes, even healthy young people can end up very sick from influenza. They can even die. (The FluMist didn’t protect well and was removed from the market due to this.)

We forget about all the times people did get the vaccine and they didn’t catch the flu even with likely exposure. Lack of disease is easy to fail to acknowledge.

We know the flu vaccine is imperfect. But if the majority of people get vaccinated, we can slow the rate of spread and protect us all against influenza most effectively.

We don’t have great treatments for influenza, so vaccinating and using other precautions is important!

Menthol for Sore Throat, Colds and Coughs… Should we use it?

I am often asked about the use of Vick’s Vapo Rub (or other menthol products and refer to all brands in this post).

We see menthol for vaporizer dispensers, in cough drops, and the good ole jar of rub that mom used on our chests when we were sick.

But should we use it?

Cough drops

Menthol is a mild anesthetic that provides a cooling sensation when used as a cough drop. It is basically a local anesthetic which can temporarily numb the nerves in the throat that are irritated by the cold symptoms and provide some relief.

Interestingly, menthol is added to cigarettes in part to numb the throat so new smokers can tolerate the smoke irritation better. Hmmm…

Menthol cough drops must be used as a lozenge and not chewed or swallowed because the menthol must slowly be exposed to the throat for the numbing effect. They are not recommended for young children due to risk of choking.

Science lacks strong evidence, but the risk to most school aged children is low and it is safer than most other cough medicines. For these reasons, I use the “if it seems to help, use it” rule for children not at risk of choking.

Do not let any child go to sleep with one in his mouth. First, he might choke if he falls asleep with it in his mouth. Second, we all need to brush teeth before sleeping to avoid cavities!

Vaporized into the air

When it is put into a vaporized solution, menthol can decrease the feeling of need to cough.

Vaporized menthol should never be used for children under 2 years of age. They have smaller airways, and the menthol can cause increased mucus production, which plugs their narrow airways and may lead to respiratory distress.

Infants can safely use vaporizers (and humidifiers) that put water into the air without any added medications.

The rubs for the skin

We’ve all seen the social media posts supporting putting the menthol rubs on the feet during sleep to help prevent cough. That has never made sense to me. The link provided discusses that it is not a proven way to use the rubs.

Menthol studies show variable effectiveness. It has been shown to decrease cough from baseline (but the placebo worked just as well) and did not show improved lung function with  spirometry tests (but people stated they could breathe better) in this interesting study.  In other words, people felt better, but there really was no objective improvement.

Putting menthol rubs directly under the nose may actually increase mucus production according to a study published in Chest. In children under age 2, this could result in an increase in more plugging of their more narrow airways.

There might be a concern with putting any petrolatum based product in or near the nose. There is a more recent study that does show children ages 2-11 years with cough sleep better with a menthol rub on the chest.

Note: There is a Vick’s BabyRub that does not contain menthol. Its ingredients have not been proven to be effective. Some of the ingredients have their own concerns, but that does not fall into this discussion.

Cautions

Menthol products should never be used in children under 2 years of age. It can actually cause more inflammation in their airways and lead to respiratory distress.

Photo source: Angel caboodle at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons 

Camphor is another ingredient along with menthol in the rubs. It can be deadly if swallowed.

It has been known to cause seizures in children under 36 months when absorbed or ingested in high concentrations.

Menthol rubs in the US contain camphor in a concentration that’s felt to be safe if applied to intact skin in those over 2 years old.

Mucus membranes absorb medicines more readily than intact skin. Do not apply to nostrils, lips, or broken skin.

Do not allow children to handle these rubs. Apply only below their necks to intact skin.

Many people using these rubs experience skin irritation. Discontinue use if this happens.

Guidelines for treatment of strep throat: Is it viral or strep?

New guidelines for treatment of strep throat were published in the Oxford Journals of Clinical Infectious Diseases this month.  They attempt to decrease the overuse of antibiotics to treat sore throats caused by a virus, since antibiotics are ineffective against viral illnesses. Streptococcus (AKA Strep) is a bacteria, and antibiotics do treat infections with Strep. (See Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Group A Streptococcal Pharyngitis: 2012 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America for the full report.)

While these guidelines are written for physicians and other medical providers, if patients understand the guidelines it can help them know what to do when they (or their children) have a sore throat.  Many parents presume Strep with every sore throat, but in reality only 20-30% of sore throats are bacterial in kids.  The large majority (70-80%) are from a virus and do not need an antibiotic. In adults the number of sore throats needing antibiotics is even lower – only 5-15%.  Nationwide, 70% of people who go to a medical provider with a sore throat get an antibiotic. This means many are treated unnecessarily.

Why do we treat Strep throat with antibiotics?

In most cases Strep throat will be handled by the body’s immune system over a relatively short time.  Without treatment most symptoms go away within a few days.

Before antibiotics were available most people with Strep throat got better on their own. Unfortunately the Strep bacteria can affect the heart (rheumatic fever) or kidneys (streptococcal glomerulonephritis) or cause other problems if left untreated. Treating with antibiotics early can prevent some of these complications.

Why do we want to avoid antibiotics if it is a virus?

Antibiotics do not help the body get better or even feel better faster if a virus is causing the symptoms. They simply are ineffective against viruses.

They do carry risks: diarrhea and allergic reactions are two relatively common issues.

Overusing antibiotics leads to bacterial resistance, which means when someone is sick with a bacterial infection, several antibiotics might fail because the bacteria has become a “super bug” and less inappropriate use will cause fewer super bugs.

How can you know when to bring your kids in for evaluation?

Strep throat and viral sore throats have a lot of common symptoms.

Strep throat typically causes a sudden onset of one or more of the following:
  • sore throat
  • fever
  • rash
  • headache
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • swollen glands

If there are “cold” symptoms such as runny nose, cough, hoarse voice, diarrhea, or eye discharge, it is more often from a viral upper respiratory tract infection, not a bacterial infection.

Children under 3 years of age are less likely to get Strep throat, but it is very common in school aged children.

The only way to know if it is Strep throat or not is to get a throat swab and test it.  A rapid antigen test is typically available in less than 10 minutes. If it is positive, treatment is indicated. If it is negative, a culture can be done to confirm Strep or no Strep.  This takes about 2 days.

To prevent rheumatic fever, treatment should be started within 9 days of symptoms starting. Unfortunately treatment does not affect the kidney disease that rarely is a complication of Strep throat.

It is not an emergency to run in to the ER overnight for possible Strep throat, but do bring kids in if they have symptoms of Strep without viral symptoms.

Also bring them in if their viral symptoms warrant evaluation in their own right (difficulty breathing, extreme pain, dehydration) or if you are unsure what is going on.

My summary of the guidelines:

1. Establish the diagnosis by swabbing the throat and doing a rapid antigen test and/or culture.  Do not treat “because it looks like Strep” because it usually isn’t.

2. If the rapid antigen test is negative in children and adolescents, a back up culture is indicated. Adults do not need a back up culture unless Strep is highly suspected.

3. Blood titers are not recommended to check for current Strep throat infection because they reflect past infections. These are used to evaluate more chronic conditions.

4. Testing is not recommended if symptoms suggest a viral infection (cough, runny nose, hoarseness, oral ulcers). Falsely positive Strep tests can happen, and then an unnecessary antibiotic would be given with a virus infection.

5. Children less than 3 years of age do not routinely need to be tested for Strep because they are very low risk of complications of rheumatic fever, but the provider can test them if they have known exposure and symptoms of Strep.

6. Follow up throat cultures after treatment are not routinely recommended but can be considered in certain circumstances (if carrier status is suspected).

7. Testing or treatment of contacts of patients with Strep throat is not recommended if those contacts have no symptoms. (This means if Brother has a positive Strep test, there is no need to test or treat Sister if she has no symptoms. But… if she develops symptoms she should come in for a test.)

8. Patients with Strep throat should be treated with an appropriate antibiotic for an appropriate time. This is typically a penicillin (such as amoxicillin) for 10 days. For those with a penicillin allergy, cephalosporins or clindamycin or clarithromycin for 10 days is recommended. Azithromycin for 5 days at Strep dosing levels is acceptable for patients with allergies to other antibiotics.

9. Use of fever reducer/pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, should be considered as needed. Aspirin should be avoided in children. Steroids are not recommended.

10. Patients with recurrent Strep throat at close intervals should be evaluated for chronic Strep throat carrier status with repeated viral infections.

11. Strep carriers do not require antibiotics because they are unlikely to spread Strep to close contacts and are not at risk of developing complications of Strep (rheumatic fever).

12. Tonsillectomy is not recommended to reduce the frequency of Strep throat.