Instances of respiratory illness traditionally peak during winter months. The populations most at risk for contracting respiratory illnesses and developing complications include the very young and seniors – especially adults over 65. People with preexisting conditions such as lung disease, emphysema, COPD, any kind of immune weakness, are also on that ‘at-risk’ list. From December through March, it is important to be vigilant about getting your flu shot, being careful when sharing close quarters with infected people and maintaining good personal habits – from frequent hand washing to eating healthy and getting plenty of sleep – that will help you and those around you minimize the impact of flu and other respiratory illnesses.
One particular respiratory illness that has gotten more attention lately is called Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, which can an infection called bronchiolitis- because it affects the smaller airways known as bronchioles- in young children. Symptoms in healthy older children and adults will resemble a common cold: stuffy/runny nose, sore throat, headache, cough, fever and a general malaise. RSV becomes concerning when it affects very young infants.
Parents should watch for symptoms similar to any kind of viral syndrome – a cough, runny nose, fever, those cold-like symptoms. Because it is so difficult to distinguish it from infections like flu, I advise patients to follow some general guidelines for knowing when to bring your infant to the doctor. One that may not be common knowledge to everyone is to watch for dehydration. If your baby is crying, are there tears? Is your baby not wetting its diaper? These are signs of possible dehydration, and a good reason to have a check-up done. Of course, things like fever, coughing or trouble breathing that does not improve, and these are all reasons to visit your primary care provider.
Your primary care provider might test for RSV, which allows you keep a close eye out for other signs and symptoms. RSV, like many respiratory infections, is caused by a virus, making antibiotics a no-go for treatment. For the most part, respiratory illnesses like RSV are treated at home with supportive care but sicker infants or younger infants may need admission for more intensive support such as oxygen and I.V. fluids.
There is a medication which should be given to high-risk infants (pre-term, low birth weight) which can help prevent RSV complications- this is a preventative medication which should be given prior to onset of illness. Ask your primary care provider if this medication is right for your child.
Bronchitis is a common respiratory illness with which most people have had some experience. It is an infection of the larger airways of the lungs, the bronchi, which is the portion of your body’s airway that follows right below the trachea. When the bronchi get infected, they become inflamed, and you have bronchitis. Again, it is a viral illness that’s typically treated with supportive care rather than antibiotics. In cases where bronchitis has not improved and has progressed to the point of symptoms like high fever, we may see if the infection responds to antibiotics – you may be prescribed something like the Z-Pak or a similar medication.
If you or someone in your family is experiencing respiratory issues, it is never a bad idea to check in with your primary care provider for expert assessment. However, if you don’t have any chronic health problems – like lung problems, asthma, COPD – you can pretty much count on over-the-counter medications to manage symptoms at home. For best results, read and follow the labeling for dosage and frequency. As a rule of thumb, give your symptoms seven to ten 10 days to clear up naturally. If your symptoms have not subsided, or if they have gotten worse, that’s when you want to think about a trip to the doctor.
Submitted by Dr. Joseph Chavez Carey
Dr. Joseph Chavez Carey, MD, FAAFP is Board-certified in Family Medicine and fluent in Spanish, Dr. Chavez Carey received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in California. His practice welcomes patients of all ages, including children.