It’s Only a Cold …

As a concierge medical practice we pride ourselves on being available to help our patients with access to the doctor by phone and same day appointments. At this time of year we are faced with daily phone calls regarding cold or flu like symptoms.  Thus, I thought it appropriate to share some topical information which should be useful in helping anyone decide whether they should “ride out the storm” or give their doctor a call.

There are at least 1,500 different known viruses that lead to a viral upper respiratory tract infection sometimes known as “the common cold”.   With these, a high sustained fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit is rare.  Aches and pains, nasal discharge with runny nose and post nasal drip are common. Dry cough advancing to a barking cough productive of clear, yellow and often greenish phlegm is common as well.  You’ll most likely feel miserable. Your sinus and head congestion make you feel like you are in a tunnel, a sound chamber, or wearing a deep sea diving helmet. Your appetite waxes and wanes. You are exhausted with the activities of daily living.  Getting out of bed to wash your face and groom yourself may seem as challenging as a 26.5 mile race up a hill.

Currently, there is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not work.  A “Z Pack “does not speed up the process. An injection of antibiotic does not make it go away faster. The infection could care less if you have a high school reunion to go to in Philadelphia, a grandchild’s bar mitzvah or baptism, or a flight to Paris for a combined work/pleasure excursion. Frankly, once you have this type of viral infection you will most likely have to ride out the storm.

Furthermore, going to the ER and sitting and waiting to be seen doesn’t make the infection go away quicker. Paying for a visit at a walk in center or urgent care center where you are more likely to negotiate successfully for an unwarranted or needed antibiotic will not help either.

In most instances, your recovery from the virus will take 7-14 days providing you drink plenty of warm fluids, rest when you are tired and use common sense. Cough medicine may ease the cough. Saline nasal solution may clear the nasal congestion. Judicious use of a nasal decongestant under your physician’s supervision may help as well.  It will take time. You are contagious. No you should not go to the gym if you are feeling poorly. Chicken soup, tincture of time, hot tea with honey, plenty of rest and common sense are recommended remedies.

If at any point you still feel you have the plague, dengue fever, the bird flu or the Ebola virus come on in. We will take a look, evaluate your symptoms and likely tell you, “It’s a cold.”

Should We Treat Sore Throats With Antibiotics?

How many of us have called our doctor with a scratchy throat, mildly swollen glands, congestion and overall malaise and requested an antibiotic?   “I know my body best and if I take an antibiotic I knock it out quickly.” is a common refrain.

In most cases, sore throats are due to viruses. Fewer than 10% of sore throats are caused by bacterial Group A streptococcus.  Antibiotics such as a Z-Pack (Zithromax), Penicillin or Ampicillin do not kill viruses.  If by chance a patient has a sore throat and an upper respiratory tract infection, the length of illness before recovery averages 4-7 days with or without antibiotics -whether strep is present or not.

How then did the throat culture and use of antibiotics begin and what is its rational? In the 1940’s and 1950’s when antibiotics were being introduced to the public it was determined that streptococcus pyogenes was the cause of Rheumatic Fever.  Researchers found that by administering antibiotics to patients with a strep throat they could reduce the rate of acute Rheumatic Fever from 2% to 1% (notice that even with appropriate antibiotic use we cannot prevent all the cases of Rheumatic Fever).

Applying this data in 2011 we find that there is about 1 case of Rheumatic Fever in the United States per 1 million cultured strep throats. In other words, we must prescribe one million prescriptions for antibiotics for sore throat to prevent one case of Rheumatic Fever. In turn, these antibiotics may cause 2,400 cases of allergic reactions, 50,000 cases of diarrhea and an estimated 100, 000 skin rashes.  It doesn’t make sense.

In a recent editorial article in MedPage, an online periodical supported by the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, George Lundberg M.D. presented a cogent case against throat culture use and antibiotics in sore throats and bronchitis. He suggested that “physicians should not prescribe antibiotics for sore throats….  They don’t help. They often hurt. First, do no harm!”

As an internist dealing with adult patients I am not seeing the groups most likely to catch a strep throat which is young children 2-7 years of age and their caregivers.  If patients present with fever, exudative tonsillitis and pharyngitis with large swollen cervical lymph nodes I will still culture them.  I will treat based on their immune status, general health and risk of having a significant bacterial infection. If I choose to prescribe an antibiotic I will make an adjustment based on the culture results.