Archive for the ‘Medical problems’ category

The best helmet to prevent football concussions is….

November 17, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Marshall wrote in: “My son has just had his 6th concussion this season in football. What’s the best helmet to use? I want to keep him safe.”

Marshall, football helmets are there to protect the scalp and the cranium—the bones outside of the brain. They prevent scalp lacerations (cuts), and probably prevent skull fractures. But helmets do not protect the actual brain. There is no helmet, and has never been a helmet, and never will be a helmet, that actually prevents brain injury from concussions.

Concussions aren’t caused by the head hitting another head, or a head hitting a wall. They occur inside the skull, when the brain slams into the inside of the cranium during a rapid deceleration. The brain is a soft, squishy, and very important organ suspended in essentially a bowl of water. If you drop that bowl off of your roof, say, the bowl might shatter on the ground (like a skull fracturing). But even if the bowl doesn’t break, the brain suspended in the water will suddenly go from moving very fast to not moving at all as it slams against the side of the bowl. That causes brain damage, and that’s what a concussion is. It’s not a broken bowl. It is a broken brain.

We diagnose a concussion if there’s been a blow to the head immediately followed by a period of altered brain functioning—dizziness, headache, foggy thinking or disrupted memory, or sometimes a loss in consciousness. Most concussion do not knock the athlete out—the immediate symptoms are more subtle. Even without unconsciousness, any concussion means that there has been brain damage. The damage is on the cellular level—you can’t see it on a CT scan or MRI, and those tests are not helpful and not needed after an ordinary concussion unless there’s a suspicion of a skull fracture or other problems.

The brain damage from a concussion will often heal, with appropriate rest and rehab; but repeated concussions or concussions with little time for recovery will lead to permanent brain damage. With more concussions Marshall’s son will develop lifelong problems with depression, fuzzy or easily-distracted thinking, movement disorders, and a genuine, marked drop in IQ. Good sleep and normal mood regulation can become impossible. These symptoms are, by and large, untreatable.

Marshall, your son will probably need his brain to work well as he grows older. If you’re serious about protecting his brain and mental abilities, he doesn’t need a new helmet. He needs to quit football.

Related posts:

Football and your child’s brain

Protecting your child from concussions

Caring for a child with croup

November 13, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Last time, we talked about croup—what it is, and what it isn’t. It’s a viral infection of the upper airway, usually caused by parainfluenza virus, that causes a peculiar, bark-like cough in infants and young children. Usually there’s a hoarse voice, some fever, and other minor viral symptoms like a runny nose. More-severe cases of croup include a high-pitched inhaling noise called “stridor.”

Though most children with croup do fine with home care, some kids can really get sick with this. Red flags to look out for:

  • Frequent or persistent squeaky upper-airway noise.
  • A sense that the child is really scared or upset.
  • A child who is excessively sleepy.
  • Blue color to the lips.
  • A parent who’s really worried.

If your child has one or more of these red flags, go see a doctor right away. Do not hesitate to go to the Emergency Department. Breathing is really important. If you’re worried, your child needs to be seen immediately.

Most kids, though, do not have severe disease and can be managed at home. The best “first aid” trick for croup is cold air. If it’s cool out, go outside or open a window. If it’s not cool out, put your child’s face in the freezer. I know this sounds weird, but it works. Croup is caused by swelling in the upper airway, and cold air quickly reduces that swelling.

If you don’t like the idea of cold air: try warm steam. I don’t think it works quite as well as cold air, but sitting in a steamy bathroom seems to help at least some.

Also, try to keep your child calm and content. Worrying and crying makes croup worse. Kids can pick up on worries from parents, and when any of us get anxious we can have some tightening of the throat. Keep things calm, or even pop in a favorite video as a distraction.

If your child has asthma, it may be worthwhile to at least try a breathing treatment with asthma rescue medications. Asthma and croup aren’t the same thing, but children with asthma will sometimes get a barky cough that sounds like croup. An asthma treatment isn’t going to hurt. Talk with your child’s doctor about when you ought to be using asthma medications so you’re all on the same page.

Children with croup that doesn’t respond to home care ought to go see their pediatrician or family doc. Pro tip: bring a video so we can hear what the cough really sounds like. (The cough is always better during the day when out offices are open.) We can help confirm the diagnosis, and sometimes treatment with a steroid can help shrink the upper airway and relieve the barky cough and tightness. Typical steroids used include prednisolone orally (tastes bad, but easy to find at pharmacies and cheap); dexamethosone orally (tastes fine, but you have to crush tablets—there isn’t a good practical liquid version); or dexamethasone injected (Ow! But it works!) Steroids will take the “croup” out of the croup, but will not knock out the cough completely. It’s still a viral infection, and a bit of cough and fever and runny nose are going to persist for a week or so no matter what you do.

Are all “croup coughs” caused by croup?

November 11, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

“I had to bring my son in again for that croup cough. What does it mean if he keeps getting that?”

“Croup” is one of those funny words that different people use to mean different things. And sometimes using the word locks us into a certain specific diagnosis that might be wrong. I try to get parents to just avoid the word entirely. Instead of saying “croup”,  just tell me what the cough actually sounds like. Or better yet, bring a video.

To a pediatrician, a “croupy cough” or a “croup-like cough” is a very specific, odd sort of cough. It sounds—really—like a small dog or seal barking. It is not a deep cough (at least not the way I think of that word), nor is it “dry” or “wet” or “chesty”.

Here’s a very typical conversation:

Mom: “He’s got that croup again!”

Me: “What does the cough sound like?”

Mom: “You know, that croup cough.”

Me: “So, what does it sound like?”

Mom: “You know, all deep in his chest.”

Me: “That’s not what croup sounds like. Does it sound like a seal or a dog?”

Mom: “Yes. It’s a chesty croup cough.”

But croup doesn’t sound chesty or deep at all. Mom and I are getting tied up in the language and not really paying attention to what the child really sounds like. Conversations like these muddy the diagnosis. In my experience, most kids with recurrent “croup” don’t have recurrent croup at all—they just have a cough, and somewhere along the line someone called it croup, and that’s the diagnosis that has stuck.

Croup rule #1: Is the cough really barky, like a seal or dog? If not, it isn’t croup.

There’s more, too. Even if the cough does sound barky, your child still may not have croup. Other things cause a barky cough, too. “Croup”, the illness, is a viral infection of the upper airway usually caused by a virus called “parainfluenza” (occasionally, other viruses can cause croup, too). Other symptoms usually include a mild fever, hoarse voice, and a sore throat that’s lower down on the neck than a typical sore throat. Appetites might be low, and there will probably be some runny nose. A more-severe case of croup will be accompanied by a breathing noise called “stridor,” which is a high pitched inhaling noise that gets worse at night. A “croupy cough” that’s not accompanied by these other findings is less likely to really be a case of croup, and someone had better remember to at least think about that possibility. Other causes of croup cough can include:

  • Asthma, especially if recurrent
  • A foreign body in the airway
  • A mass in the airway
  • A loose kind of airway (some kids are born that way, and their coughs always sound kind of croupy, though it isn’t really “croup”)

Croup rule #2: Not all croupy coughs are caused by croup.

There’s no single test that definitively tells you that it’s croup. A viral swab of the nose can show if parainfluenza virus is around (though not all croup is caused by parainfluenza, and parainfluenza itself can cause infections other than croup.) An x-ray of the neck can reliably show swelling and changes that are very suggestive of croup—and can effectively “rule out” other possibilities. Sometimes a chest x-ray can be helpful, too. But the bottom line is that the diagnosis depends on the overall picture. The exact sound of the cough is important, but doesn’t make the diagnosis alone. Doctors and parents need to keep an open mind, and not label all that barks as croup.

By the way, that virus—parainfluenza—it’s confusing the way we’ve named these things. Parainfluenza has nothing much to do with influenza, which is a different virus completely. Influenza vaccines don’t prevent parainfluenza infections. Parainfluenza commonly causes croup in babies and young children, and also causes “laryngitis” (sore throat and hoarse voice) in older kids and adults. It can sometimes also cause a viral pneumonia in young people, or sometimes a wheezy chest infection called “bronchiolitis.” Yikes!

Next up: what to do when your child has the croup.

Should docs prescribe placebos for cough? The agave nectar story

November 3, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Coughing is among the most common symptoms that bring children to the doctor’s office. It’s an annoying symptom that disrupts the sleep of both the child and parents (though, oddly, siblings seldom complain—that may mean something.) Coughing itself is actually an essential physiologic mechanism to get dust and yuck up out of the lungs, but we all know that sometimes a little cough becomes a big or chronic cough that’s no fun at all. Big coughs also have the ability to make themselves worse though what’s called a “cough cycle”: person coughs, that irritates the throat, that triggers more mucus and more coughing, and the cycle continues. Fun!

So it’s understandable that people want some way to relieve coughs. We’re talking here about ordinary, everyday coughing—coughing that accompanies an ordinary upper respiratory infection (the common cold.) If someone is coughing because of asthma or pneumonia or croup or something like that, there’s specific therapy that ought to be given. Most coughs, though, are just coughs. And we want them to go away.

What’s available to help with coughing? Humid air from a vaporizer might help some (though some studies show warm humidity might worsen allergic coughs). At least one study showed that menthol rubs (like “Vicks VapoRub”) help, though the study itself wasn’t strong. We know that cough and cold medications commonly sold over the counter not only don’t work, but aren’t particularly safe. There are also dozens (maybe hundreds) of alt-med herby things that are sold, again with no evidence whatsoever that they work. Bottom line: we don’t have much for coughing.

One idea: honey. Honey is effective in children—two studies in 2007 and 2010 have shown it’s more effective than cough “medicine”—but can’t be used before the first birthday. It’s safe (at least past 12 months of age), it’s cheap, it’s worth a try. But what to do with coughing children less than one?

The same researchers who did the 2007 honey study just published another report, looking this time at agave syrup for cough in children 2 months to 4 years old. Agave syrup is a sweet extract from a cactus. It’s thick, like honey, and tastes good—and at least in reasonably small doses it’s safe at any age. In this study, a total of 69 babies and children with ordinary cough were randomized into three groups. One group got a small dose of agave syrup, one group got a “placebo” dose of grape-flavored water, and the third group got no intervention at all. The next evening, parents filled out a report of their assessment of cough severity.

Their study showed that all three groups had an improvement in cough the night after the study—whether given agave, placebo, or nothing at all. Though all children improved, the ones given agave or placebo improved somewhat more. There were several measures of cough, but to give you an idea, looking at the aggregate “cough score,” the improvement was about 10 for children given nothing, and about 15 for children given agave or placebo.

What does all of this mean? Bottom line: coughing gets better, whatever you do. But if parents are given instructions to do something, whether it’s agave syrup or a placebo solution, the cough seems to get better by a little more. Agave “works”, but it only works as well as the placebo, which by usual convention means it doesn’t work at all. Nonetheless, the parents in the study perceived that children given something did a little better than children given nothing.

Agave syrup is probably as safe as doing nothing. If you want to try it, go ahead. But I’m a little leery of the idea of encouraging an intervention that’s no better than placebo. I don’t like to create a dependence on medical interventions, especially ones that aren’t necessary. Parents shouldn’t feel that every medical issue needs a medicine, or a trip to the pharmacy, or even a trip to the grocery store or the “placebos-r-us” boutique. Hugs and love and comfort aren’t going to be studied, but I suspect they’re often the best medicine of all.

Serious side effects of vaccines are rare. What does that mean?

October 23, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

“Serious side effects of vaccines are rare.”

Vaccines are not 100% safe. Like any medical intervention, there’s some risk (honestly, like anything at all, anything we do, there’s some risk. But let’s not get sidetracked here.) Side effects, including serious side effects, can happen after vaccines. What are these reactions, really? How often do they occur?

Here, I’m only talking about genuine, established side effects. Things are genuinely, scientifically, reliably linked to vaccines. Some things that had once been thought be a potential side effect of vaccines are now known to have been caused by other conditions (like seizures and encephalopathy after DTP, now known to be most-often caused by a rare genetic condition called Dravet Syndrome, that would have occurred whether the child was immunized or not.) There are also side effects reported that are clearly unrelated, like choking on a bean in the trachea or turning into the Incredible Hulk. We’ll ignore those, and concentrate on the real, serious, potentially deadly side effects that have been documented to be caused by vaccines. I’m going to list all of them, for every vaccine. If I missed any, please add in the comments.

Any vaccine – Serious allergic reactions can occur. These do happen, though the rate of serious reactions depends on the vaccine. For most immunizations, the rate is less than 1 in 1 million; however, some very-rarely used vaccines can have a higher rate. The yellow fever vaccine, for instance, causes severe allergic reactions in about 1 in 55,000 people; anthrax vaccine is estimated to cause severe reactions in 1 in 100,000. Almost all severe allergic reactions occur within minutes of vaccination, and health care facilities who give vaccines should have people trained to treat rare reactions like these.

Influenza – The Pandemrix brand of influenza vaccine, which was never licensed or used in the United States, has been linked as a cause of narcolepsy in about 1 in 55,000 vaccine recipients in several countries in Europe. This product was only used during the 2009-2010 season. The CDC is currently sponsoring an international study to try to better understand this, and why that one formulation seemed to be a unique trigger for this rare condition.

In 1976, a different specific Swine Flu vaccine was linked to about 450 cases of Guillian-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a neurologic disorder that was estimated to occur in about 1 in 100,000 people who got that specific vaccine that year. The baseline rate of GBS is probably 1-2 per 100,000, so when 45 million doses of vaccine were given in 1976, some cases were going to occur coincidentally. Substantial studies have shown that other flu vaccines from more-recent years do not cause GBS. Ironically, influenza disease itself causes more GBS than even the 1976 Swine Flu vaccine is purported to have caused, and even if that association were true influenza vaccination would prevent far more GBS than it would trigger.

Japanese encephalitis – Rarely used in the United States, the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine has been linked to prolonged arm and shoulder pain among vaccine recipients. I could not find an exact rate, but this appears to be an uncommon reaction.

MMR — About 1 in 30,000 people given a dose of MMR will have a drop in their platelet count, which can predispose to bleeding. The rate of low platelets is much higher in real measles than after the vaccine, so, again, ironically MMR probably prevents more cases of low platelets than causes it. This condition is temporary and almost always requires no treatment at all.

Polio — The oral polio vaccine, no longer used in the United States, could trigger genuine, full-blown polio in some people—probably about 8 per year in the entire US, back when we used the oral version. We’ve been using only the injected polio since the mid-1990s, which carries zero risk of causing polio.

Rotavirus – Rotavirus vaccines carry a small risk of causing an intestinal blockage called “intussusception.” This condition is treatable, though it often requires a brief hospitalization. The risk was highest after the first doses of the original brand of vaccine, Rotashield, which was withdrawn from the market; the risk after current brands is probably in the range of 1-3 in 100,000. However, rotavirus itself, the real infection, is also a cause of intussusception. To put this in perspective: using the high end of the risk estimates, about 40-120 vaccinated infants may develop intussusception each year in the USA, compared to 65,000 infants who had been hospitalized for rotavirus illness each year prior to the vaccine becoming available.

Smallpox – Routine smallpox vaccinations stopped by 1970 in the US, but a smallpox vaccine is available for high-risk researchers and military people and others thought to be at risk of exposure. The vaccine can cause heart problems in 1 in 175 people, and there is a risk that the vaccine virus can spread on the skin of a vaccinated person or contacts, especially when the skin is damaged or there are immune problems.

Yellow fever – Used only in certain travelers, some kinds of yellow fever vaccine can causes severe neurologic problems (about 1 in 125,000) or death, especially in elderly people (1 in 500,000).

That’s it—that’s the list. All of the serious, lasting, you-need-to-worry about side effects. You’ll notice that almost all of the really serious side effects occur only with vaccines that aren’t likely to be recommended for your children. Most of the routine childhood vaccines (DTaP, HIB, pneumococcal conjugate, hepatitis B, hepatitis A, chicken pox, meningococcal conjugate, human papilloma virus) only carry a very rare risk of allergic reactions, and even those are entirely treatable and temporary. In other words, science has failed to find any evidence for any real, lasting, serious vaccine reactions among any of the vaccines currently recommended for routine use in children in the United States.

When we say “serious side effects are rare,” we mean “serious side effects are very very very rare, and really only happen with vaccines that we don’t even use.”

What parents need to worry about are diseases, not vaccines. Don’t let the scaremongers and internet rumors sway you. The risk of a serious, lasting side effect from any routine childhood vaccine is just about zero. Make sure your children are safe and protected. Vaccinate!

Infection Report 5: What you really should be worried about

October 10, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

This week’s posts have all been about infections, new and old—infections newly found, and infections sneaking back. On the one hand, the media is agog with news of Ebola and the mysterious paralysis virus; on the other hand, threats that are far more likely to kill us are being largely ignored.

One infection is on the verge of sneaking back, which is a shame. We had it beaten, and now we’re allowing it to gain a foothold. We’ve got a great way to eradicate measles, but fear and misinformation have led to pro-disease, anti-vaccine sentiment, especially among those white, elite, and wealthy. As we’ve seen, we’re all in this together—so those anti-vaccine enclaves are going to affect all of us.

Measles, itself, is just about the most contagious disease out there. You don’t need to have infected fluid splashed on you (Ebola), and you don’t need to actually even touch a contaminated surface (influenza). All it takes to catch measles is to breathe the same air as someone with the disease. The measles case doesn’t even still have to be in the same room—particles of infectious measles can float around long after the patient has left. Measles can also be transmitted from contaminated surfaces (and even if person A who touches the surface is immune, he can spread it later on to person B.) Measles is so transmissible that 90% of non-immune people who come near someone with measles will themselves get it. To make matters worse: a person with measles starts spreading virus 4 days before they get sick (compare that to Ebola, which has no transmission until symptoms appear.)

And it’s serious, too. Measles is far more than spots. In the USA, about 1 in 20 people with measles require hospitalization for pneumonia; about 1 in 1000 get brain swelling, which can lead to permanent disability. Measles still kills close to 200,000 people, worldwide, every year (about 1 in 4 people with measles die in the developing world.)

While no vaccine is 100% effective, the measles vaccine is pretty darn close. About 95%-100% of people develop lifelong protective antibodies after the two-dose series. Unfortunately, not everyone can be vaccinated—the vaccine isn’t routinely used less than 12 months, and some people with certain health conditions and immune problems can’t safely be vaccinated. Still, when vaccine uptake rates were strong throughout the developed world in the 1990s, there was very little transmission of measles in the United States, just a handful of cases each year.

And now, it’s back. 2014 is going to have by far the most measles cases in 20 years. Though overall rates of vaccination remain strong, some neighborhoods have immunization rates poorer than third-world countries. And cases that begin or are imported into those areas become outbreaks that public health officials struggle to contain.

Think about this: in west Africa, thousands of people are dying of Ebola, for the lack of rubber gloves and other ways to isolate cases. Here, we do have a safe and effective vaccine against a disease that’s far more transmissible—and some people choose not to get it. There, they battle a lack of basic health resources. Here, our enemy is fear and misinformation. That’s what American families really need to worry about.

This week’s posts about infections new and old were meant to contrast the kinds of challenges faced here, versus the challenges faced in most of the rest of the world. We’re so safe and rich that we can afford to be afraid of things that really shouldn’t scare us (vaccines), while the media becomes preoccupied with things that aren’t likely to become a threat here (Ebola.) We don’t get our flu vaccines because “I heard the flu vaccine can give you the flu” – an utter falsehood that is probably contributing to thousands of deaths. At the same time, we guzzle unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections that do us far more harm than good.

Preventing infections is always the best strategy. Wash your hands, stay away from sick people, keep your kids home when they’re ill, and listen to what every legitimate health authority on the planet says: get yourself and your kids vaccinated. As long as we get them, vaccines are one thing you do not have to worry about.

This week’s posts: The Infection Report

Why are infections such a problem again?

Ebola and you

The single biggest infectious health risk is preventable

Two newcomers and the importance of paying attention

What you really should be worried about

Infection Report 4: Two newcomers and the importance of paying attention

October 9, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

While Ebola makes the headlines and influenza prepares its yearly visit, two other “new” infections have been brewing this summer. We’re still got a lot to learn about “the new respiratory virus,” AKA enterovirus D68, and whatever seems to be causing cases of paralysis in 9 kids in Colorado. It’s even possible that these two infections are the same. These infections are coming to light because hospitals and public health officials stay on the lookout for new patterns of disease and infections. It’s not complicated, and it’s really not rocket science. It’s all about paying attention.

Earlier this year, hospitals first in Illinois and Missouri reported an unusual spike in ER visits and hospitalizations for respiratory symptoms, including cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Often, children with this infection became very sick very rapidly, requiring hospital or ICU-level care very shortly after the onset of symptoms. Most, but not all, affected individuals had pre-existing lung problems, mostly asthma. Though routine testing for a specific agent still isn’t widely available, laboratories were able to identify a specific viral cause, an “enterovirus” named D68. That virus has been around since at least 1962, but until this year hadn’t caused widespread infections. It’s probably spread throughout the United States, and continues to contribute to many hospitalizations.

Many children (and adults) with this infection probably have mild symptoms, indistinguishable for any other viral “cold”, but some go one to become seriously ill. By the way, that’s true for almost all ordinary cold viruses—though most people sail through those infections just fine, every once in a while an ordinary cold virus makes someone very, very ill. This new enterovirus isn’t really that different from many other respiratory viruses, but it’s newly widespread and seems to have a disproportionately high rate of complications.

Or maybe it is kind of different, after all. We’re also hearing reports out of Colorado of a new kind of illness, one that looks like an infection, that’s caused flaccid paralysis in at least 9 children (actually the CDC is investigating about 23 reports, though it’s not yet clear if all of these are the same condition.) Many of those children seem to have had a respiratory illness about 2 weeks prior to the onset of the paralysis. MRI scanning is showing changes in the part of the spinal cord that controls motor functioning, and in some ways the clinical presentation and MRI findings look similar to an old infection, poliomyelitis. But specific tests for polio virus have been negative.

Here’s an theory: this respiratory virus D68 and polio virus are related—they’re both from a large, diverse family of viruses called “enterovirus.” These viruses typically cause summer infections, and different kinds of enterovirus can cause disease of the gut, lungs, liver, nerves, skin—all sorts of things.  About half of the Colorado 9 children have tested positive for D68. That’s not definitive—that doesn’t mean D68 is causing the paralysis—but it’s certainly suggestive and interesting. It is possible that these two new things, the respiratory virus and the paralysis, are actually being caused by the same infection.

We’ll be learning more about these infections in the coming months. For now, the best steps available to protect your family are common sense things: wash hands, stay away from sick people, don’t touch your face, and beware of signs of bad respiratory disease. Though there are no vaccines for these new infections yet, you can prevent the return of polio and the widespread sickness of influenza with current, safe, effective immunizations. Hospitals, doctors, and staff at hospitals in the midwest did a great job in identifying these new problems and alerting public health officials to begin their investigation. Our health depends on all of us, together, paying attention to and confronting health threats like these.

Next: What you really need to worry about


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