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My Child Has a Cold, Should I take Her the ER, Urgent Care or the Pediatrician?

Written by Kristen Stuppy MD

As cold and flu season approaches, I have been thinking about how our kids are managed when they become sick. Not only what we do to treat symptoms, but how, when, and where patients get medical advice and care.

We are a busy society. We want things done now. Quickly. Cheaply. Correctly. Resolution so we can get back to life.

Illness doesn’t work that way. Most childhood illnesses are viruses and they take a few weeks to resolve. There’s no magic medicine that will make it better.

Please don’t ask for an antibiotic to prevent the runny nose from developing into a cough or ear infection.

Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your child has had a fever for 3 days and you need to go back to work.

Don’t ask for an antibiotic because your teen has a big test or tournament coming up and has an awful cough.

Antibiotics simply don’t work for viruses. They also carry risks, which are not worth taking when the antibiotic isn’t needed in the first place.

Urgent Cares are not always the best choice

Many parents in this community have grown accustomed to using after hour urgent cares because they are convenient.

Convenient isn’t always the best choice. Many times kids go to an urgent care after hours for issues that could wait and be managed during normal business hours. I know some of this is due to parents trying to avoid missing work or kids missing school, but is this needed? Can it hurt?

Some kids will get unnecessary tests, xrays, and treatments at urgent cares that don’t have a reliable means of follow up. They attempt to decrease risk often by erring with over treating. Our office does have the ability to follow up with you in the near future, so we don’t have to over treat.

Urgent cares don’t have a child’s history available.

They might choose an inappropriate antibiotic due to allergy or recent use (making that antibiotic more likely less effective). They might not recognize if your child doesn’t have certain immunizations or if they do have a chronic condition, therefore leaving your child open to illnesses not expected at their age.

We know that parents can and should tell all providers these things, but our own new patient information sheets are often erroneous when compared to the transferred records from the previous physician… parents don’t think about the wheezing history or the surgery 5 years ago every visit. It is so important to have old records!

To treat or not to treat?

There is some evidence that treating things too soon does not allow our bodies to make immunity against the germ. A great example of this is Strep throat. Years ago we would go to a doctor when our sore throat didn’t get better after a few days. They would swab our throat and send the swab for culture, which took 2 days. We would treat only after that culture was positive. That delay in treatment allowed our bodies to recognize the Strep and begin making antibodies against it.

Now kids are brought in the day they have symptoms, and if the rapid test is positive, they immediately start antibiotics. The benefit? They are less likely to spread Strep to others and they can return to school 24 hrs after starting the antibiotic. The negative? They might be more susceptible to recurrent illness with Strep, so in the end are potentially sick more often and end up missing more school.

Receiving care at multiple locations

Receiving care at multiple locations makes it difficult for the medical home to keep track of how often your child is sick. Is it time for further evaluation of immune issues? Is it time to consider ear tubes or a tonsillectomy? If we don’t have proper documentation, these issues might have a delay of recognition.

Urgent cares and ERs are not always designed for kids.

I’m not talking about cute pictures or smaller exam tables. I’m talking about the experience of the provider. If they are trained mostly to treat adults, they might be less comfortable with kids. They often order more tests, xrays, and inappropriate treatments due to their inexperience.

This increases cost as well as risk to your child. We have been fortunate to have many urgent cares available after hours that are designed specifically for kids, which does help. But this is sometimes for convenience, not for the best medical care.

What About Cost?

As previously mentioned, cost is a factor. I hate to bring money into the equation when it comes to the health of your child, but it is important. Healthcare spending is spiraling out of control. Urgent cares and ERs charge more. This cost is increasingly being passed on to consumers.

Your co pay is probably higher outside the medical home. The percentage of the visit you must pay is often higher. If you pay out of pocket until your deductible is met, this can be a substantial difference in cost. (Not to mention they tend to order more tests and treatments, each with additional costs.)

So what kinds of issues are appropriate for various types of visits?

(note: I can’t list every medical problem, parental decisions must be made for individual situations)

After hours urgent care or ER:
  • Difficulty breathing (not just noisy congestion or cough)
  • Dehydration
  • Injury
  • Pain that is not controlled with over the counter medicines
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever >100.4 rectally if under 3 months of age
Your Primary Care Pediatrician Visit:
  • Fever
  • Ear ache
  • Fussiness
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Any new illness
Issues better addressed with an Appointment in the Medical Home:
  • Follow up of any issue (ear infection, asthma, constipation) unless suddenly worse, then see above
  • Chronic (long term) concerns (growth, constipation, acne, headaches)
  • Behavioral issues
  • Well visits and sports physicals (insurance counts these as the same, and limits to once/year)
  • Immunizations – ideally done at medical home so records remain complete

If your child gets a vaccine at any other location, please send us documentation (including the date, brand, lot number, and place administered) so we can keep the records complete.

Remember your pediatrician’s website might offer trusted answers to questions and many treatments to try at home for various illnesses and conditions! Be careful of surfing for answers though… the internet is full of bad advice! Go only to trusted sources (such as your doctor’s website or HealthyChildren.org).

Dr. Stuppy is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas. I feels privileged to be able to help families keep their children healthy and she loves watching entire families grow!  Dr Stuppy is active on Facebook and puts a more personal touch to pediatric topics on her blog.  

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Contagious Diseases and Siblings

Written by Jesse Hackell MD

In the fall of 1957, the Asian influenza pandemic was spreading across the country. My younger sister had just been diagnosed with that flu, and my grandmother had arrived shortly thereafter to help at our home when my mother entered the hospital to give birth to another sister. In those days, one could count of a solid seven days in the maternity hospital, even for an uncomplicated delivery.

Knowing the extremely contagious nature of the flu (she had lived through the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918), my grandmother set out with every weapon known to modern grandmotherhood to prevent my father and me from getting sick, fearing the consequences for my mother and newborn sister. With isolation, chicken soup and constant scrubbing and disinfecting, my father and I were spared the disease, as were my mother and sister, and, as long as she lived, my grandmother delighted in telling the story of how she confounded the pediatrician who had predicted that we would all very soon be ill.

Flash forward fifty-four years to 2011. What are the risks to siblings today when one member of a family contracts a communicable disease, and how should we respond? I think that the answer depends on many factors, one of which concerns the nature of the particular illness that one person has contracted.

Viral Illnesses

Some viral illnesses are highly contagious, even without direct contact. Certainly chicken pox and measles used to spread through families like wildfires, but immunization has largely reduced the occurrence of these diseases, primarily by greatly reducing the amount of disease in circulation, and, further, by producing immunity in children who might somehow be exposed. The same goes for influenza, the bane of my grandmother; since universal influenza immunization was recommended a few years ago, the burden of disease has been reduced, although not as much as it could be if everyone actually did get their flu shots.

Contagious Illnesses

How about other types of infectious, contagious illnesses? The common cold is just that, common, and most people will suffer one or multiple episodes each year. Unfortunately, there is no effective preventive immunization, and it does tend to spread readily; fortunately, it tends, in most people, to be relatively  mild and of short duration.

Strep Throat

Strep throat is another common contagious illness, especially in children. There certainly are families where multiple members will get strep in close temporal relationship to each other, and these may be the result of spread within the family.

But it is also possible that multiple family members were exposed at school or work, and contracted the illness elsewhere.  But strep is harder to spread than some of the illnesses discussed previously, and there are many cases where one family member gets it, and no one else becomes sick. This is one illness where good handwashing, and avoidance of sharing of food, utensils and so on, can be a useful preventive measure.

Infectious Mononucleosis

The same can be said for infectious mononucleosis–“mono,” also known as the “kissing disease,” primarily for its reputation as a common occurrence during adolescence. Yet in most of the families where one child has mono, it is very uncommon for other siblings to also contract it. Thus simply sharing a room, or time at the dinner table, is generally not enough to transmit an illness like mono.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia in children is also common, and the vast majority of cases are viral in origin–and they are often caused by the same viruses which cause the common cold. I tend to think of most cases of pneumonia as “a common infection in an uncommon place,” and generally feel that, while another member of a family might catch the same virus, it is far less likely to be caught as pneumonia. Rather, it might cause a head cold, sore throat or ear infection in someone else.

So why does this matter?

Rare is the day which goes by that I am not asked a question like “his brother has strep (or pneumonia of the flu or…), so why can’t you just treat all my kids for it without having to see them?” In response, it is important to point out that every person who gets a fever after being in contact with someone who has strep is far from guaranteed to have strep as the cause of that fever; most illnesses are just not that contagious, and most fevers require individual evaluation regardless of the person’s exposure.

The same thinking goes into my response to the schools who send home notices every time someone in a class is diagnosed with strep, ostensibly warning parents to be on the lookout for strep in their children. About the only thing these notices accomplish is the wasting of paper.

I would far prefer that parents react to each of their children’s illnesses in a vacuum, paying no attention to what the child might have been exposed to (assuming, of course, that the child has been fully immunized, thus pretty effectively–but not 100% completely– ruling out those preventable illnesses as a cause of the fever.)

What to do when your child is ill

When your child is ill, pay more attention to how he or she is acting, how sick he or she appears, and how well the illness is being handled by the child, than to what diseases he or she might have been exposed to.  Discussing that information with your pediatrician will enable you to better decide what y our next course of action should be for evaluating the illness in that child.

 

Dr. Hackell is a founding member of Pomona Pediatrics PC, a division of Children’s and Women’s Physicians of Westchester. He practices in the lower Hudson River Valley just north of New York City.

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Back to School Illnesses… Please Don’t Spread the Lovebugs

Written by Melissa Arca, MD

First of all, realize it’s inevitable: Children will get sick. I have yet to meet a child in school who went the whole school year without coming down with something. That being said, there are measures we can take to lessen the chances of our children falling prey to some of these viruses.

First, I will outline 5 of the most common culprits causing illness in the preschool and school age child during fall and winter. Then I will give you some practical tips on containing these viral bugs.

Hand Foot Mouth Disease: This is most commonly caused by the coxsackie virus and peaks in the summer and early Fall. This virus affects mostly young children (children under 10). The symptoms consist of a fever, decreased appetite, and sore throat. Usually painful mouth sores develop on the tongue, inside of cheeks and back of throat. This may or may not be accompanied by the non-itchy skin rash on palms and soles of feet.

The Common Cold: Your child may be afflicted with this a few times a year. The most common culprit here is the rhinovirus though there are several different viral strains producing symptoms of the common cold. Hence, several colds can be caught during one season. The symptoms vary but most commonly include: stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, mild fever, and sneezing.

The Flu: Ahh… the dreaded flu. Influenza and its various strains cause the dreaded flu symptoms. As opposed to the common cold, the flu gives more pronounced and severe symptoms: high fever (usually over 100.4), sudden onset of symptoms, profound body aches, headache, and general malaise with decreased appetite. With the common cold, respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, congestion and cough are more prominent than in the flu. So far, the only preventive medical defense we have against this is the seasonal flu shot.

Strep Throat: Unlike the above conditions, this one is caused by a bacteria (Group A Strep.) and not a virus. So, this must be treated with antibiotics. So how do you tell the difference from a common sore throat (viral pharyngitis) and strep throat? Here are the key differences: strep throat involves a higher fever (usually above 101 F), red and swollen throat with possible pus formation, absence of cough, and swollen lymph nodes in neck. Strep throat may also be accompanied by abdominal pain, possible vomiting, and a body rash.

Gastroenteritis, aka the “stomach flu,” is caused by several different types of viruses, most notably rotavirus and adenovirus. The most prominent symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. Some children may only have the vomiting, some only the diarrhea, and the unlucky ones will have both. This may be accompanied by fever and stomach ache. Having the so-called “stomach flu” does not mean you have the “flu” as in influenza.

I picked the above 5 conditions because they are by far the most common this time of year and they are highly contagious. There is just no way around it. Okay, so having thrown all that at you, what can you do to help minimize and contain these nasty viruses?

  1. Frequent hand washing is the number one way to help prevent the spread of these bugs. Encourage and teach your child to wash their hands several times throughout the day. Before eating, after using the potty, after playing outside, etc. Have them sing a song while washing to make sure they wash long enough (ABC song is a good one).
  2. Carry sanitizer. I always wipe my kids’ hands as soon as they get into the car from school. This time of year, it’s just a good habit. Wipe down shopping cart handles too.
  3. Encourage children to sneeze and cough into their arms or a tissue.
  4. Keep children home if they have a fever, are vomiting, or have significant diarrhea. Of special note: keep them home if they have eye drainage, this could signify a conjunctivitis and should be evaluated by a doctor.
  5. Teach them not to share drinking cups or utensils with their friends.
  6. By all means, sanitize the toys and personal items in your house after a bout with any of the above.
  7. Make sure your children get enough sleep, eat well balanced meals, and exercise regularly. All of these will help insure that their immune systems stay in tip top shape.

Treatment: Since the above, with the exception of strep throat, are caused by viruses, antibiotics will not help. Keep your child comfortable by treating their fever with a fever reducer. Give plenty of fluids and rest. With the stomach flu, keep your child’s diet bland and make sure they stay hydrated with small and frequent amounts of liquids.

Possible Complications: Secondary infections can set in following colds or the flu. Ear infections and pneumonia are common secondary infections. Watch for fever recurrence, chest pain, difficulty breathing, or worsening cough. Dehydration can set in following a bout of gastroenteritis. Stay on top of your child’s liquid intake. These conditions should be evaluated by your child’s pediatrician.

Do not hesitate to contact your child’s pediatrician whenever you’re concerned or have questions regarding your child’s health.

Good luck to all of you this fall and winter season. Unfortunately, these bugs will make their way into our households — just make sure your child gets plenty of rest, fluids, and love.

We’ve already battled a short bout of gastroenteritis and a nagging cold. How about you? Have your children been afflicted by any of these back to school bugs yet?

Dr. Arca is a pediatrician, mom of two, writer, and blogger who works part time in a community clinic while raising her two young children. She has become passionate about writing and speaking about motherhood, parenting, and children’s health. She is author of the blog, Confessions of a Dr.Mom and writes a weekly column in her local newspaper, The Sacramento Bee.