Just as the balmy days of summer transition to the cool nights of fall so parents can anticipate that first back to school infection brought home and shared with all members of the family. While classroom conditions may have improved, and antiseptic cleaning universally deployed, we still see a sharp rise in the incidence of transmitted infections as our children congregate in school. What parent hasn’t cared for that first stuffy nose, the cough or wheeze that disturbs sleep, the sore throat with accompanying fever? Worse than that is the rapidly improving illness in our children which when transmitted to the adults in the household leaves us debilitated with lingering symptoms for weeks.
How to Tell if You Have a Viral Infections or a Bacterial Infection
How do we differentiate those infections that respond to conservative means - rest, hydration and over-the-counter meds - versus those that need treatment with a prescription? In general, the pattern, severity and duration of symptoms are the key characteristics of an infection that may need intervention.
Most upper respiratory infections characterized by headache, low-grade fever, ear pain, nasal congestion/discharge and/or sore throat are caused by a plethora of viruses whose infections will get better on their own and only require treatment of symptoms. An exception is in people who have other medical conditions such as asthma, respiratory allergy or other systemic diseases where even simple viruses may require early assessment so they don’t complicate the other condition.
Many times, persistent symptoms are not caused by lingering infection but rather result from the damage caused by an infection that is getting better. Viruses can cause mucus to turn from clear to a color - and not all green mucus needs antibiotic treatment. Viral sore throats can cause as much pain as Strep throat.
Bacterial infections such as Strep throat (caused by streptococcus pyogenes) usually bring on more severe pain and higher fever. Ear and sinus infections in an otherwise healthy person usually start with a viral infection that goes from a day or two of gradual improvement to a suddenly worsening state. Ear infections in young children can be particularly difficult to judge since higher fevers and extreme pain are common.
When to Seek Medical Care to Treat Infections?
We often see over treatment as opposed to inadequate treatment since people are usually more critical if an infection is not treated to their satisfaction. Unfortunately, the over-prescription of antibiotics has led to emerging antibiotic resistance and a greater incidence of severe side effects.
The best advice to follow is to seek out help when symptoms are particularly severe or are accompanied by anything unusual. If the condition’s improvement suddenly worsens it is time to see a doctor. If symptoms such as a cough, sore throat or nasal congestion linger without improvement past 7 to 10 days, its best to seek medical care.
Just because someone has a past pattern of respiratory infections does not always mean that is what they are experiencing currently. Americans clearly end up with more treatment with medication then necessary. Quality medical assessment should both be able to discern when additional treatment is beneficial and when it is not. This can be frustrating for parents, particularly when bacterial infection follows after an early assessment where the findings didn’t support treatment.
Here at Advanced Specialty Care, our ENT physicians are available for acute care on a same day, call-in basis at most of our locations in Fairfield County. Our physician assistants are also specialty trained and capable of all of the examination techniques necessary to provide the optimal care for your condition or that of your children. Our ear, nose and throat specialists also treat problems of the head and neck, including ear infections, tonsillitis, sleep apnea, deviated septum, silent reflux, and more. Our offices are located in Danbury, New Milford, Norwalk, Ridgefield and Southbury.
- Dr. Richard Lipton