Posted tagged ‘uri’

Can vitamin D supplements prevent colds?

February 20, 2017

The Pediatric Insider

© 2017 Roy Benaroch, MD

Linus Pauling was a brilliant scientist. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 (and, later, a Nobel Peace Prize for his work towards nuclear disarmament.) In the later part of his career, he became convinced that megadoses of vitamins, especially vitamin C, could ward off upper respiratory infections and other ills. Studies have never supported those claims. But maybe he was only off by one letter of the alphabet.

A recent, large study from the BMJ provides solid support for the use of vitamin D – not C, but D – supplementation to prevent ordinary colds and other respiratory infections.

There’s been some inkling that this might be the case. We know that vitamin D, separate from its role in calcium metabolism, has an important part to play in our immune response to infections. It supports the production of built-in antiviral and antibacterial peptides, and helps immune cells make germ-destroying oxygen and nitrogen compounds. Population studies that have shown an increased susceptibility to colds among people who are immune deficient.

What we haven’t had, until now, is a convincing study from an experimental perspective. If we give vitamin D, does that really prevent colds?

What these authors did was impressive. They collected the raw, patient-by-patient data from 25 previous clinical trials of vitamin D, and combined all of that into one mega-study with about 11,000 participants. All of the patients had to have been randomized to either vitamin D or placebo, and rates of respiratory infections tracked going forward. Most of them had blood tests to assess their levels of vitamin D before the trials began.

The bottom line: vitamin D supplementation decreased the risk of a cold by about 12%. That doesn’t sound very high, but on a population level, we’re talking about a lot of infections. And: among those that had low vitamin D levels, the effect size was much larger, about 40%. Vitamin D supplementation was more effective in preventing colds with a daily dose rather than just bolus dosing once in a while.

Who’s low in vitamin D? Based on my experience looking and blood tests from children and teenagers, all of our children are low. Seriously. The only time I see blood tests reflecting a normal or high vitamin D level, it’s in someone already taking a supplement. Our children (us, too) aren’t spending enough time outside to make the vitamin D we need.

The study also found no downsides to ordinary supplements. There were no significant side effects or problems. We’re talking, here, about ordinary doses of probably 400-2,000 IU each day. There’s really no reason to take any more than that, unless there’s a problem with vitamin absorption or some other unique medical issue.

Vitamin C, Airborne, zinc, echinacea – none of these have held up to scrutiny. None of those help prevent people from getting respiratory infections. If you want you and your children to get fewer colds, there are only a few strategies that genuinely work. Stay away from sick people, keep infants out of group care, wash hands frequently, and immunize against influenza and other respiratory pathogens. And, maybe, enjoy a little more time in the sun, or take a vitamin D supplement every day.

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Can medicines relieve coughing?

January 4, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Wzrd1 asked, “What are your thoughts on expectorants?”

One of the most common reasons for office visits to me, especially in the winter, is coughing. No one really likes to cough – not the kids, and certainly not their parents. Everyone wants the coughing to stop.

First, though, think about what a cough is – it’s a forceful pop of an exhale that can bring up mucus from the airways. If you’ve got a cold with excessive mucus, or you’ve inhaled some dust, or there’s a bacterial infection with pus down in your lungs, the only way to get that stuff out is to cough it up (and, typically, swallow it back down into your stomach. From there it can be digested on its way out of your body. Isn’t science fun?) The alternative to coughing is to just let the yuck sit down there. Coughing has a purpose, and it’s a good thing.

Yeah, I know. Try telling that to a parent or child at 2 AM. Besides, no one wants a coughing person at school or at work, spraying their mucus around. I get it. So it sure would be nice to have something, anything, to at least slow that cough down some.

Now, if your child has asthma or cystic fibrosis or some other lung thing, it’s best to treat the underlying cause of the cough. For the rest of this post, I’m talking about only non-specific, mild, ordinary coughing. The kind that goes with an ordinary “cold” or “chest cold” or “bronchitis” (which, by the way, are all the same thing. But that’s a topic for another time.) If your child has a cough with a high fever or trouble breathing, or has chronic lung problems or heart disease, go get it checked out.

Most of the time, though, a cough is just a cough. Medicines available to help with cough fall into just a few categories:

Cough suppressants, like dextromethorphan (OTC) or the narcotic codeine (Rx). These either make you too sleepy to cough, or somehow “suppress” the cough centers of your brain to trick you into not coughing. Stronger ones, like codeine and similar compounds, can cause respiratory depression and death, which is bad.

Expectorants, like guaifenesin (OTC). These supposedly “thin the secretions”, making them easier to cough up. Sometimes, expectorants and suppressants are combined into one product, which I suppose makes it easier to cough while simultaneously stopping your cough. Honestly, I get a headache just thinking about why that would be a good idea.

Antihistamines, which block many allergic reactions. These will help if a cough is caused by allergy (clue: if there is also runny/itchy eyes and nose, that might be the case.) Older antihistamines like Benadryl also make people sleepy, so they won’t notice the cough. Maybe that’s good.

Do these medicines work? There are dozens of studies out there, using a variety of doses and ways to measure coughing. The bottom line, summarized here, is that better-quality studies with more-objective measures of coughing and appropriate use of placebo comparators have not consistently shown any effectiveness for any “cough medicine”, used alone or in combination. And there have been significant side effects, especially from antihistamines and narcotic-based cough suppressants.

About expectorants specifically: basic science studies, like this one, have failed to show that expectorants change the way mucus appears or is cleared by cilia. And clinical studies from the 1980’s showed no change in objective or subjective cough scores.  There have been zero—zero!—good quality studies of expectorant use in adults or children for coughing in the last 20 years. I did find one case report of a man who had improved sperm motility when he was treated for infertility with guaifenesin, but I don’t think that’s exactly what most parents are looking for.

In fact, the only positive news about cough treatment I found in the recent literature was in support of honey for the relief of coughing in children one year and up. Three good randomized trials have been published in the last few years, all showing that honey is better than either placebo or “cough medicine”.  We’re not talking honey-based “medicine”, here – that’s for sale, but you don’t need it. Just good old honey, typically from a bottle shaped like a bear. It works, it’s cheap, it’s safe for children 1 year and up. Give it a try. And teach your children to cough into their elbows. That’s honestly the best you can do.

Honey badger don't care

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drug safety tip: Do not point nose spray upside down

November 12, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

 

Here’s a safety tip that makes sense—and it took a very simple study to show it. Nose sprays that are meant to be squirted with the bottle facing upwards shouldn’t be turned around to squirt medicine downwards.

Researchers from UCLA just published an eye-opening report on dosing of nasal spray medications. They studied oxymetazoline, a common OTC nasal decongestant spray marketed as “Afrin.” We know that 1-2 mL of this product (swallowed or sprayed into the nose) can lead to an overdose, including symptoms of slowed heart rate and breathing. We don’t worry about that, much, because the squirt bottle it’s packed in only delivers about 0.03 mL per squirt – you’d have to do over thirty squirts to reach a toxic dose. But that’s only if you use the squirt bottle correctly.

The investigators, instead, bought three different brands of oxymetazoline, and squirted it downwards, at a 45 degree angle, simulating what parents might do if they were squirting this into the nose of a child who is laying down. The volume delivered this way was between 0.6 and 0.9 mL for a single squirt—meaning, if both nostrils were hosed this way, you would almost certainly reach a potentially toxic dose.

With the help of my assistant, Blue Toad (who, ironically, doesn’t even have a nose), we’ve taken some helpful photos to demonstrate. Here, Blue Toad is getting a safe dose, using the bottle pointed upwards as designed:

Squirting up -- safe!

Squirting up — safe!

But here, Blue Toad is lying down, and the bottle is pointed down into his nose. Bad news for Blue Toad!

Squirting down? Bad idea!

Squirting down? Bad idea!

All medicines should be used carefully, following the directions—and the directions for this nose spray clearly say to hold the bottle upright. Still, I could imagine some parents trying to use this while their kids were lying down. Better to play it safe: make them sit up, and squirt up.

Homeopathy as good as antibiotics? No.

November 9, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

An August, 2015 study in Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is being touted as evidence that homeopathy is as affective as antibiotics for respiratory infections in children. It doesn’t show that at all—in fact, it doesn’t show anything, except that crappy studies in crappy journals can nonetheless be used to manipulate opinion. Beware.

First, the study itself. Researchers in Italy looked at about 90 children with ordinary colds. All of them were given a homeopathic product that the authors claimed had already been shown to be effective for cough (that’s not actually true, but let’s let it slide for now.) All of the children did improve, as expected—colds go away, as we all know.

The “study” part was randomizing the children into two groups. One half of the study subjects only got the homeopathic product, the other half got both the homeopathic syrup PLUS amoxicillin-clavulanate, an antibiotic. You Insiders are already thinking—what, wait, what? You know that antibiotics have no role at all in the treatment of the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics won’t make any difference. In fact, they’re very likely to cause harm, causing allergic reactions and gut problems and maybe triggering c diff colitis. It was entirely unethical for them to even give these antibiotics to the children, with not even an inkling of a reason to think they were a valid medical therapy. But they did it anyway.

The results are exactly what you’d expect. Both groups of children (the ones on homeopathy, and the ones on homeopathy plus antibiotics) did the same—their symptoms all improved over the weeks of the study. No surprise at all.

But the authors claimed “Our data confirm that the homeopathic treatment in question has potential benefits for cough in children…” The study didn’t show that all. They didn’t even look for that kind of effect—if they wanted to, they could have, by randomizing one group to receive homeopathy, and the other group to not receive homeopathy. But that kind of study wouldn’t show what they wanted it to show, so they didn’t do it.

You’re wondering, maybe, why did Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine even print this unethical, worthless study? The answer is here:

How much does it cost to publish?

 

Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine is what’s called a “predatory journal”, which charges high fees — $1,940 — to publish articles. These types of journals exist only to make money—there is minimal or no editorial oversight, and the whole point is to publish whatever someone will pay them to publish. The authors get their publication, and journalists and the public are fooled into thinking real science has occurred.

Another highlight – I’m not an investigative journalist, but looking at the full text of the article, I see under footnotes “The authors declare they have no competing interests.” Yet under acknowledgements, it also says “We thank Boiron SA, Messimy, France for a non-binding financial contribution.” Boiron is a huge producer and marketer of homeopathic products. And: when I Googled the lead author’s name + the word “Boiron,” I found this page, which features a video of him on Boiron’s site. No competing interests?

So, an unethical study comparing the wrong things claiming to show something it didn’t, published in a pay-to-play journal, paid for by a homeopathy company, written by a guy who is featured on said homeopathy company’s website. You still shouldn’t use antibiotics to treat a cold. And this study, like so many other homeopathy studies, shows only that homeopathy is a scam.

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 3: Myths

October 15, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

You might not like to hear it, but the truth is….

 

Nothing really works well to treat these things

Colds, flus, and sinusitis all share some things in common—and the most important one is that just about all of us get these, and they make us miserable, and we want them to go away. Billions are spent on all sorts of things to treat these conditions, both from pharmaceutical companies and from companies that make supplements and other alternative-health nostrums. We’ll try just about anything. But if clinical studies reliably show that just about nothing really helps, why do we keep buying them?

I think the most important factor is simple human nature, and the way that symptoms change. If you have a cold, the symptoms get better and worse throughout the day—so if you take medicine or supplement XX when you feel really bad, the natural ups and downs average out, and you’ll feel better. But: you would have felt better anyway! Still, human nature, you took the magic beans (that you paid for), then you felt better, so there must be a connection, right?

That happens at the end of an illness, too. Let’s say you’ve had a cold for 6 days, and you go to the local get-me-some-drugs at the QuickieClinic. You get some antibiotics, and a few days later you start to feel better. Boom, QED, there’s all the proof you need. (BTW, docs are pretty much just as bad about giving out unnecessary antibiotics, too.) But: you were going to get better anyway.

Think about this, it’s really important: many symptoms occur like a mountain, with an up and a down. If you try therapy at the top, when you’re feeling bad, you will feel better. But that doesn’t mean that the therapy was why the mountain went downhill.

 

Flu shots work

The effectiveness of flu vaccines varies from year to year, but typically runs ~ 50-75% — that’s pretty good, really, for a health intervention (it’s much better than, say, the effectiveness of taking a cholesterol-lowering drug to prevent a heart attack. And some people take those every day for years.) It does mean, though, that in a family with say four people who’ve gotten flu vaccine, one child may not be well protected. That’s why it’s important for the whole family to get it.

Also: flu vaccines only prevent the flu. They don’t prevent colds. And they take 3 weeks or so to “kick in” – you don’t get instant protection.

 

Flu shots cannot cause the flu

MythsNo. They can’t, and they don’t. They can sometimes cause a little fever or achiness, but that is not the flu—and anyone who’s actually had the flu will tell you that these mild symptoms after a flu vaccine are pretty much nothing. Sometimes, right after a flu vaccine, someone does get the flu—that’s because we’re giving flu vaccines during flu season, and if you don’t get it in advance it can’t protect you. The vaccines take about 3 weeks to work. If you catch influenza right after getting the flu vaccine that’s called “bad luck” or “bad planning”, not “bad vaccine.”

 

Green snot means sinusitis

No, green snot means it’s been sitting around up your nose (you’ll often notice this overnight), and your white cells are busy fighting off the viral infection. Good for your white cells. Go blow your nose, and stop looking at the color—it doesn’t matter what shade it is.

 

Flu tests are needed to diagnose flu

Commercially available flu tests aren’t very good—they give a lot of false negatives (a negative test even in the setting of flu), and some false positives (a positive test in a person without flu.) Many health care facilities don’t even use them. A flu test can be helpful, sometimes, if I’m on the fence about a diagnosis, but they’re really just not very reliable to help make decisions about treatment.

 

Cold weather causes colds

Colds are caused by viruses, one of many from families called “rhinovirus” and “coronavirus” and others. They’re not caused by cold weather. BUT there is a germ of truth here: cold air in the nose can make it more likely that these viruses can be transmitted. Grandma may have been right!

 

I’m sure there are other myths, feel free to add your own in the comments!

 

The whole series:

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 1: Symptoms and Diagnosis

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 2: Treatment

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 3: Myths

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 2: Treatment  

October 12, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

The previous post was about the symptoms of colds, the flu, and sinus infections—they’re not the same. This time, we’ll cover their treatment. And, surprise, it turns out that treating all of these is pretty much the same.

Style: "Neutral"

The most important part of treatment is rest and comfort. Get more sleep, and stay out of school or work until feeling better. That helps you and your children recover, and hopefully prevents the spread of illness. Drink more fluids, and have some soup.

To treat aches and pains, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It’s better to use these around-the-clock for a few days rather than just when symptoms become bad—these medicines are better at preventing pain and fever than treating pain and fever.

Treating nasal congestion is all about drainage. Use a humidifier and/or nasal saline spray. If your child is old enough, sometimes OTC decongestants given orally or as a nasal spray can help some, but they’re certainly not miracle drugs.

Coughs are annoying, but they’re there for a purpose: to get mucus up and out. If a cough is bothering your child, one of the best treatments is ordinary honey (for age 12 months and up.) Older children can sometimes benefit from OTC cough suppressants, but, again, they don’t work great. If your child has asthma, it’s probably a good idea to start up rescue medications during a cough.

There are a few more-specific treatments, depending on the diagnosis. If it’s influenza, a specific anti-viral medication (usually Tamiflu) can help some if started within the first 24-48 hours of symptoms. But the benefits of this medicine are modest at best. Tamiflu does not prevent serious complications, and only reduces symptoms by a little bit. Most people with influenza won’t notice any huge improvement with Tamiflu.

Sinusitis is typically treated with antibiotics, though even then the benefits of antibiotics are often over-stated. Studies looking at populations of both children and adults, comparing active antibiotics versus placebos, have shown really limited benefits to using antibiotics to treat sinusitis, at least ordinary, uncomplicated cases. And, of course, these same studies show that people taking antibiotics are much more likely to experience side effects and adverse reactions than those taking placebos.

The good news is that whatever you do, you’re going to get better. Whether it’s a cold, the flu, or sinusitis, symptoms will get better with or without treatment—though you’re going to be feeling sick for a while. If that’s the case, why does it seem like Tamiflu, antibiotics, OTC supplements, and all sorts of other things “work”? Next up, Part 3: Myths.

 

The whole series:

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 1: Symptoms and Diagnosis

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 2: Treatment

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 3: Myths

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 1: Symptoms and Diagnosis

October 8, 2015

The Pediatric Insider

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD

 

We’re heading back into colder weather again, and along with the change in the leaves comes more people with miserable, congested noses. Today’s post is all about telling the difference. Next time, I’ll tell you how to treat them.

 

The common cold

Captain ColdAlso called an “acute upper respiratory infection”, a “cold” is far and away the most common cause of congestion and cough. It usually starts with a vague ill feeling, followed by a sore throat and then a congested or drippy nose. Sometimes, there’s a fever at the start of the illness (that’s more common in babies and younger children.) A few days later, a cough begins. On average, the symptoms of a cold last about 10 days, though often the cough lingers for 2 or 3 weeks.

Notice: the symptoms grow or develop over several days, and the fever is really only at the beginning. By day 7-10 things are starting to improve.

 

Influenza

“The flu” is a specific viral infection, and it’s not just a bad cold. Symptoms including fever, sore throat, body aches, nasal congestion or drip, and cough all pretty much start all at the same time, or within a few hours. Sometimes there are also gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain or vomiting. Fever and aches are usually the worst symptoms – you feel, pretty much, like you’ve been hit by a truck. The worst symptoms last five days, but the congestion and cough often linger for another week or so.

Notice: the symptoms are sudden and severe.

 

Sinusitis

Most common colds, of course, go away on their own, with or without any kind of treatment. But rarely a common cold can turn into a sinus infection. That occurs when the persistent mucus becomes infected with bacteria, leading to worsening symptoms 7-10 days into an ordinary cold, or persistent symptoms 2 weeks after a cold begins. Very rarely, sinusitis can start suddenly and severely, but much more typically there is first a cold that turns into a sinus infection.

Notice: a sinus infection is like a cold, but the symptoms worsen after 7-10 days. A congested nose for less than 7-10 days is unlikely to be a sinus infection, even if it feels really stuffy.

 

Next up: treating colds, the flu, and sinus infections.

The whole series:

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 1: Symptoms and Diagnosis

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 2: Treatment

A cold, the flu, or sinusitis? Part 3: Myths