How to Manage Respiratory Symptoms, While Reducing the Need for Antibiotics
As a Pediatric Nurse, I talk to parents on a regular basis about their kids' colds and coughs. It's starting to be influenza season, too, so we are on the lookout for that. My goal is always to help empower parents in caring for their children at home as long as the symptoms are not serious. There is so much that people do not realize can be done at home, rather than simply waiting to see what happens!
One big misconception that some parents have is that a cold or a cough should always be treated with antibiotics. It seems like health care professionals are doing a really good job of educating people about this, but I still do, at times, talk to people who aren't aware of the facts when it comes to antibiotics.
When should an antibiotic be prescribed?
First, an antibiotic should NOT be prescribed when someone has a virus. Antibiotics treat bacteria, so they will do nothing for viruses. Most respiratory illness start out as a virus. Signs of a respiratory virus can include: Fever as high as 104, runny nose, congestion, cough, and sometimes watery eyes or even a bit of eye discharge (usually white in color). The mucous from the nose is often clear, but after several days can be yellow or even green, especially in the mornings. Often it will then become clear as the day progresses.
If the virus turns into a secondary infection, then, and only then should an antibiotic be prescribed. Signs of a secondary or bacterial infection include, but are not limited to:
Eye discharge (green or yellow in color), eye redness
Sinus congestion with mucous that is consistently green or yellow
Sinus pain (pain in the cheekbones, forehead)
Chest pain, even when not coughing
Shortness of breath, unproductive cough (mucousy sounding, but cough does not clear the mucous)
Fever 100.4 or higher for 3 or more days, especially if this occurs later in the illness
Fever 105 or higher
Sore throat with fever for greater than 48 hours, or sore throat greater than 5 days
Any other worsening symptoms
Any of these symptoms should be immediately evaluated by a qualified health care professional, and depending on the diagnosis, an antibiotic may be prescribed. Note: Some ear infections are actually viral, so talk to your provider about this.
What are the dangers of taking an antibiotic for a virus (or when it is not necessary)?
Antibiotic resistance has become a huge issue. It occurs when a bacteria mutates so that it can survive the antibiotic. Unfortunately, we are getting to the point that antibiotics are failing to treat some of these bacteria.
Disruption of gut flora, which can lead to gut issues such as diarrhea or abdominal pain, but even worse, antibiotics are the leading cause of clostridium difficile, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Immune system concerns A big part of our immune system is our gut flora. Did you know that 75% of your immune system is in the gut? Antibiotics can be life saving when used appropriately, there is no doubt about that. But they do not discriminate between good and bad bacteria; they just kill all of it. So, the immune system can take a big hit when antibiotics are overused.
So, how can we prevent a secondary (bacterial) infection?
It's clear that sometimes antibiotics are needed. But since they do carry some significant side effects, my goal is always to prevent a virus from turning into a secondary infection. One thing to keep in mind is, when mucous is allowed to pool or stagnate in the respiratory tract or sinuses, that is often when a bacteria starts to grow.
We have been taught to treat the symptoms, such as giving a cough suppressant or a decongestant. However, a cough is the body's way of protecting the lungs from pneumonia, and drying up the mucous does not allow the body to flush the virus and mucous out. Better options are to soothe the cough, and help the mucous to thin out and drain.
Here are some of my favorite ways to do this:
Honey (my favorite is raw manuka honey): In my practice as a pediatric RN, we have always recommended honey as the best cough medicine. Other types of cough medicines suppress coughs, which is not what you want since a cough is the body's way of protecting the lungs. Honey soothes and lessens coughs and sore throats by reducing mucus, and may even help encourage a healthy immune response. Click here to see one of my favorite brands.
Steam can help open up the airways and thin out mucous, and is a wonderful tool. I always recommend parents expose their children to steam from a hot shower right before bed when they are experiencing respiratory symptoms of any kind. Many parents then ask me about humidifiers. Humidifiers are very helpful, but keep in mind, bacteria loves to grow in water. If you are not certain that you can effectively sanitize your humidifier daily while in use, then don't use it (humidifiers have many nooks and crannies that you may not be able to clean thoroughly. A vinegar and water solution can be effective in sanitizing a humidifier). I have seen children get pneumonia overnight after sleeping with a humidifier, and while I cannot be certain of the cause, it points to a humidifier that may have had bacteria growing in it.
The easiest way to get good steam is to turn the shower on as hot as you can, until it creates steam. Then get your child close to the steam (not in the hot water) and have them breathe it for 5-10 minutes. It is also very helpful to put a drop of Breathe or Eucalyptus essential oil in the palm of your hand, and hold it up to the child so they can breathe it as well as the steam.
For older children and adults, you can even boil water, pour it into a bowl, and, once tolerable, have them breathe the steam from the bowl with a towel over their head for 5-10 minutes. Take care that no one gets burned by water that is too hot. Put a few drops of Breathe or Eucalyptus essential oil blend in the water. Read on for a futher discussion of how and why these oils can help.
The steam exposure should be done at least every day, especially before bed. It also helps to do it in the morning, though, since mucous pools during sleep/laying down for extended periods of time.
Xylitol Nasal Spray such as Xlear. Plain saline nasal spray or drops are fine as well, but I like Xlear better for older children and adults! This type of treatment helps to clean out the sinuses, by thinning out mucous so that it can drain better. Do this 2-3 times per day during illnesses.
For young children and babies, just use saline drops. You can find these in a bottle at pharmacies or in supplement sections at the store (or here). Have them lay back and instill 1-2 drops in each nostril. They may blow it out on their own, but if not, you can help by suctioning out with a device such as a Nose Frida. Use a new bottle for each person and for each new illness.
Breathe Essential Oil Blend We have had great success with this blend, and use it
mainly in the diffuser, as well as in the bowl of hot water while breathing steam. I tend to put 3 drops of Breathe with Eucalyptus and Frankincense, but if all you have is Breathe, you can just put 5 drops of it in the hot water or diffuser. The oils in this blend help open the airways, reduce inflammation and thin mucous, and encourage a healthy immune response.
Frankincense helps to support the immune system and is known to be anti-
inflammatory. Honestly, I often add Frankincense most of my diffuser and topical blends because it is such a wonderful oil!
Eucalyptus is a powerful essential oil to promote respiratory health. It helps to open
the airways and encourages a healthy immune response in the respiratory system.
On Guard Don't forget about this blend! It is not necessarily specific to respiratory health, but for overall immune health. Apply to the bottoms of the feet on a regular basis during illness.
Respiratory Diffuser Recipe:
3 drops Breathe
2 drops Eucalyptus
2 drops Frankincense
Diffuse at bedside each night while respiratory symptoms are present.
I love to play around with other oils that are known to support respiratory health, but this blend is a great place to start! Don't have a diffuser? That's OK, you can always combine these oils with a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil, and apply to the chest and/or bottoms of feet.
You can try just one of two of these options, but I will say, we have found tremendous success in using all of them (Honey, Steam, Xylitol/Saline Spray, and essential oils)!
What about fevers?
Fevers really make people uncomfortable. Often along with a fever comes body aches, feeling too cold or hot, and just plain feeling awful. Many people think they are helping their child when they give a fever reducer, and it certainly does make them feel better. But a fever is a natural immune response that helps fight an infection, so it is good to let the body do its thing, up to a point.
The guidelines we provide at my clinic are to treat fevers of 102 or higher (unless your doctor has instructed you to treat at lower temperatures, such as in the case of a history of febrile seizures). Call your doctor right away for any fever of 105 or higher.
In the meantime, Peppermint essential oil can provide a cooling effect and help make a person more comfortable. Diluting the Peppermint is key, as kids otherwise find it "spicy" on the skin. Using a pre-diluted roll on bottle with 1/3 Peppermint and 2/3 fractionated coconut oil is so helpful for this. Apply to the forehead and maybe the back of the neck as needed during a fever.
There is a lot you can do at home!
There is a lot you can do to help your kids (and yourself!) to overcome a respiratory illness, before a secondary infection happens! My hope is that you will recognize how many tools you have within your reach to help in this process. The key is diligence. You cannot use the above methods one time and expect to see lasting results, but if you use them consistently, these tools can be of great help. Think of it kind of like your own prescribed regimen; be diligent in using these methods every day until symptoms have resolved.
FDA Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or veterinarian. Any information contained on this blog is meant to be for entertainment purposes only; it is not meant to replace advice from your health care provider. None of the information on this blog has been evaluated by the FDA. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. I will not respond to emails asking for specific medical advice or recommendations for humans or animals. Do your own research, talk to health care provider, and proceed with caution.