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When You're A Wreck And The Doctor Tells You, 'It's A Virus, Just Deal'

A person with a cold reaches for a tissue. (Peter Gerdes/Flickr)
A person with a cold reaches for a tissue. (Peter Gerdes/Flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

"It’s a virus."

My doctor’s words literally made me feel sick. Sicker, I mean. I had already been feeling sick for two weeks, with a list of symptoms as long as my latest CVS receipt: throbbing sinuses, a nose that ran like a faucet, chest congestion, and a cough that rivaled any Coast Guard foghorn. Laryngitis, aches and pains everywhere — and oh, so tired.

My arsenal of over-the-counter remedies (confession: I‘m a bit of a prepper for this kind of thing) had failed me miserably. I’d already missed a week of work.

I waited for days to contact my doctor but finally raised a white Kleenex in defeat and left a message. It was time for antibiotics, I thought. I’d earned them after all my hard work trying to avoid them.

So imagine my shock and despair when she told me that what ailed me was viral and suggested I try some different over-the-counter remedies and rest at home for a few more days.

In my barely audible (remember the laryngitis) voice, I made a passionate plea for a five-day course of something.

At that moment, mine was one small voice in a big problem: Too many doctors prescribe antibiotics when they aren't needed. According to the Mayo Clinic online, “overuse and misuse of antibiotics are key factors contributing to antibiotic resistance." The CDC says up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate.

There appears to be some progress getting the message out to doctors and patients. Between 2011 and 2014, the CDC reported a 5 percent decrease in antibiotic prescribing nationwide. However, the decline was mainly among children, while the agency actually noted a slight increase in antibiotic prescription rates for adults.

In my case, I was compassionately sentenced to ride this one out. On my couch. Surrounded by Kleenex and mist from that new $40 humidifier that didn’t seem to be making a difference and had to be cleaned out with white vinegar every few days. And still dreaming of a quick-cure antibiotic.

I get it. Antibiotic resistance is a real concern. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, explained it to me in stark terms: “There is no point in taking an antibiotic that has no effect in treating your illness — you only are exposing yourself to the side effects of the antibiotic. The more antibiotics we use, the more likely we will create resistant 'super bugs,' which we will not be able to treat effectively when we really need to.”

But surely, a superbug isn’t lurking around my corner anytime soon, I thought. It’s not like I’m some doxycycline addict with a craving for Cipro. (I’m allergic to penicillin.)

Defeated and still feeling sick, I retreated back to the couch. Dayquil turned into Nyquil. I opened another box of Kleenex. Eventually, I threw in a load of laundry and turned the knob to the sanitize cycle. I settled in for a long siege of sickness.

Maybe it was breathing in the menthol vapors of the Vicks I had slathered on my chest and neck that brought up some clarity along with the congestion. Was it possible that I didn’t need antibiotics this time? Was I just conditioned to expect antibiotics because that’s the way it went for decades whenever I went to the doctor’s office with any kind of illness?

Dr. Schaffner confirmed my couch-side diagnosis: “Patients have expectations for an antibiotic prescription and too many doctors have prescribing habits that are out of date."

He went on to tell me he’d heard stories from pediatricians getting push-back from moms whose kids who are uncomfortable with colds. His own friends and family have pushed back and made clear their “disappointment and skepticism” when he’s told them that their sinusitis or bronchitis did not need an antibiotic.

I thought a second opinion was in order. So I asked my own doctor: Dr. Jill Goldman, a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital. She thinks doctors are doing a better job educating patients than they did a decade ago.

I was disappointed to learn that I was an outlier, at least among her patients, when it comes to begging for antibiotics. Sometimes, “I even have patients tell me that other doctors thought they wanted antibiotics and they didn't, and they have to tell the doctor, 'no!' ” (Ah, come on!)

So what’s the best medical treatment when antibiotics aren’t the answer? I’m thinking about prescribing myself a 10-day cycle of M&M’s to be “taken” twice a day with ice cream. It will lift my spirits and just might trick my body into recovery mode.

That’s my plan, anyway. As for doctors, Schaffner suggests dispensing large doses of empathy and reassurance, with a cheery, “Isn’t it great that you don’t need an antibiotic?”


Karen Shiffman Program Director, WBUR
Karen Shiffman, the former executive producer of On Point, began working on the show when it went on air in 2001. Karen was also a program director at WBUR. Before coming to WBUR, she spent more than a decade as a television producer at WCVB-TV and WBZ-TV.



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