Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 Posts of 2013

My last post of 2012 was my Top 10 Posts of 2012. I think I'll keep the tradition going with the Top 10 of 2013.

photo source: Shutterstock

This past year I have written about everything from insurance to illnesses to common parental concerns. My most influential blog has been about the generic formulations of Concerta, with 11,875 readers. It has been shared on ADHD blogs, various Facebook and Twitter feeds, and found on Google searches. I never thought over 1,000 people would read one of my posts, let alone over 10,000! Thank you to all who are reading and sharing!

If you don't want to miss a post, be sure to sign up for an e-mail subscription on the right!

From #10 to #1:

10. My Child's Cough and Breathing Sounds Like… is a collection of videos I compiled to help parents describe their child's cough.

9. Allergy Tips reviews ways to avoid allergens when possible and how to treat symptoms.

8. Flu Vaccine 2013: The Story Unfolds discusses how coding and billing issues impacted our office use of flu vaccines this season.

7. But the Snot Is Green… once again argues why the color of mucus does not make the diagnosis of bacterial sinusitis and gives information on treating colds and coughs.

6. To Tamiflu or Not to Tamiflu  might be a little intense for some readers because it reviews the research on Tamiflu risks and benefits. I am happy it is among the top 10 because I want people to see that Tamiflu isn't that miraculous of a drug for influenza. I get far too many requests for it this time of year. 

5. Flu Shot Information 2013-14 Season explains the different types of influenza vaccine available for the season. 

4. Help! My Child Has ______ Up His Nose! shares a "secret" tip I use to get some unwanted objects out of a child's nose. 

3. Screen Free Week is a challenge to readers to go Screen Free for a week. I have no idea why it is ranked so high. That is a surprise to me. 

2. Cough Medicine: Which One's Best reviews various cough medicines and other treatments of cough.

1. Generic Concerta Not Working Like the Brand Used To?  was read about 10 TIMES as much as any other post. It was found most often by a search engine, not direct shares, which tells me that many families are struggling with this issue. This is the post I am most passionate about. Any of my ADHD patients who are treated with Methylphenidate ER/Concerta know how angry I am that the FDA allows this substitution. I am thankful that the blog can help spread the word so that parents who are concerned about their child's sudden altered response to a medication can learn what might be the cause. I had so many updates to the original post, I wrote a follow up: Update on generic Methylphenidate HCl ER.

Blogs that missed the Top 10 that I wish more people would read include: 

Evolution of Illness - I wish people would read this because we often fall into the trap of wanting a quick fix. Too many parents bring kids into the doctor for a fast remedy only to find that there isn't one.  Resolution of illness takes time. Sometimes kids get worse, only to have the parent accuse a doctor of missing something. It happens to all good docs once in awhile…

First Period Q&A with a Tween - I wish people would find this one because it has questions every young lady thinks about but is often afraid to ask.

It's [Sports, School, Camp, Yearly] Physical Time - I wish people would read this so they understand the value of well exams and the scheduling constraints most pediatricians face. Don't call at the last minute!

Insurance Confusion - I wish people would read this because dealing with insurance is one of the most stressful parts of my job. I want people to learn about insurance to avoid financial surprises and to be responsible with insurance use.

Private Discussions with the Pediatrician - I wish people would read this because I am often uncomfortable (and sad for a child) when a parent wants them to leave the room for us to discuss something privately. Pre-planning with a quick phone call or secure message before the visit can save the child from excess worry.

What kids need to be able to do to leave the nest - This is one of my favorites because it was written at a very emotional point of my life. My kids are growing up and I reflected on what I really want them to know.

New Ideas

While most of my blogs were article-style writings, I introduced a few different types of blog this year. 

My first (and to date only) attempt at a video blog was Nutrition For the Picky Eater. It was born from a talk I gave at an ADHDKC.org parent meeting. 

I also did a picture blog with Lawn Mower Safety

I had one guest blogger. Sleep expert, Kerrin Edmonds, wrote Common Sleep Myths

Busy times…

April was my busiest month blogging. Seven posts that month. It tends to be a slow month in the office.  Ironically it was also Screen Free Week, a time I should have been off the computer!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"But the snot is green…" Or "How can we treat cough and colds?"

This time of year it seems everyone is at least sniffling. Many have annoying coughs. Coughs are annoying to others who wonder why that cougher isn't staying at home keeping his germs to himself. They are annoying to the cougher who is up all night coughing (and his parent who also hears it all night long.)

cough, cold, uri, upper respiratory infection, mucus, green mucus, sinus

And then there's all the mucus. We normally make about a liter of mucus a day. Yes, a liter of the stuff. On a good day. It helps moisturize our airway and collects the dust and germs that enter our body. It has antibodies that help fight off the germs it catches. We swallow most of what is made, but when we're sick we make even more. When we're sick it plugs up our noses and makes our head hurt. It drains down the back of our throat, causing us to cough. In kids it drips down the face. It changes color from clear to yellow to green. Sometimes it even gets bloody. It can be thin or thick and sticky. Don't be fooled that the color or thickness means it is for sure "just allergies" because it's clear, or a sinus infection because it's green. These change based on how long it's been in the sinuses, how dry the air is, and other factors. Yellow or green color does not come from bacteria or guarantee that antibiotics will help get rid of the mucus.

Colds and coughs seem to continue forever. Especially since kids get recurrent viral infections this time of year, and they each run into the next illness. I often joke that it doesn't matter if kids get sick in October or January, it will go away by April. Bad joke, but it often seems that once kids start getting sick for the season, they stay sick most days until April.

Here's a graph from way back in 1967 that shows the timeline of a typical upper respiratory illness in an adult:

Remember that kids tend to stay sick longer (and are contagious longer) than adults, so if 20% of adults are still coughing on day 14, you can bet at least that many kids still are coughing with a cold or the flu.

So what can you do to help make kids feel better? As I always say: water, water water.

Water in the air helps thin the mucus, so increase the humidity in the bedroom during the dry winter months. Use a humidifier or vaporizer in the bedroom during illnesses even if your home has a humidifier attached to the heater. Humidifiers with a cool mist are safest with young children. Be sure to follow package directions for cleaning and changing the filter. Vaporizers are generally less work to use, but the steam comes out very hot and can burn young children. Again, follow package directions for proper cleaning and use. Allow it to dry out a bit during the day to avoid build up of mold. 
Water in the nose in the form of saline can really help. The salt in the saline draws the fluid out of the swollen nasal passageways, decreasing the swelling and opening the airway to allow more mucus to be blown (or sucked) out.
Increase fluids that kids drink. Really push water. And unless a child is allergic to milk, it is an old wive's tale that milk will make the mucus worse. If that's what they want, they can have milk with a cold. 
I think what really needs to happen is to get the mucus out. Using saline along with a strong blowing (or suctioning) of the nose is important.

For infants and younger children it can be hard to blow forcefully to get the mucus out. I have been disappointed in the use of a bulb suction because it is very difficult to make a seal and to have enough air to really get a good suction. They tend to cause trauma to the nose because you need to stick it up so high to make a seal. I like nasal aspirators that seal outside the nose and have a continuous flow of air. Check out How to use the Nosefrida. A similar nasal cleaner is available from Nasopure. (Note: I am not tied to either of these companies and do not get any payment from either company.)
For kids over 2 years old, washing the nose is one of the best ways to treat (and prevent) nasal congestion. Check out this video from Nasopure for an easy how to use. (Note: I do not get payment from this company, I simply love the Nasopure company. Not only does the product work well, it is also an all American company. Bottles are made in Kansas City and assembled by disabled adults in Columbia, Missouri.)

What medicines work?

If you choose to use medicines, pick one that has a single active ingredient. Many cold and flu medicines include several active ingredients to treat different symptoms. This increases the likelihood you will use a medicine that isn't needed (because you don't have that symptom) as well as increases the risks of side effects. Also if there is an allergic reaction, you won't know which component was the culprit.

I don't recommend decongestants most of the time. They can make the mucus more thick, which plugs the nose more. If a child is old enough to say if it helps or not (generally over 6 years) and it helps, then it is okay to use a decongestant for a short term. Side effects are trouble sleeping, shakiness, nervousness, increased blood pressure and increased heart rate.

Antihistamines block the histamine that is triggered from allergies. It helps decrease the amount of mucus made when allergies flare, but don't help with the typical cold. Side effects are drowsiness, impaired coordination, excitability in children, and dry mouth.

Guaifenesin is supposed to help thin out mucus to help cough it up. Some studies say it works, others disagree. Again, if a child is old enough to say it helps and it does, use it. Otherwise don't. Side effects can include dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, blurry vision, or lightheadedness.

Studies do not show that any cough suppressant works very well. Honey has actually been shown to help better. Use honey only in kids over 1 year of age due to risks of botulism.

For influenza many people request Tamiflu. Here's my blog on Tamiflu describing why I will be forced to use a medicine I don't like. (It's too long to explain here.)

Another blog going in depth on cough medicines is Cough Medicine: Which one's best?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Child's Cough and Breathing Sounds Like...

Parents often bring in kids with a cough but can't describe what it sounds like. I sometimes get to hear it if they cough, but Murphy's Law also says that a child who coughs often throughout the night and frequently during the day will have a 15 minute period of no cough at the exact time the doctor is in the exam room.

photo source: Shutterstock
In all seriousness -- coughs, regardless of the source -- are usually worse at night, which means your  doctor won't usually get to hear the worst of it.

I often wish there was one place I could refer parents to so they could see what various coughs sound like, so I decided to put a list together. The internet is ripe with videos now, but I have spent many hours watching videos that weren't very helpful in order to find these. I'm sure I missed some of the best ones, so if you have one that you really like, please post in the comments below.

My next blog will be on how to treat cough and colds.

Regardless of how the cough sounds, if you are worried about your child's breathing or the sound of the cough, bring your child in to be seen.

Disclaimer: I have no ties to any of the videos below and am not responsible for any of the opinions or errors within them. Some are professionally done and others are videos parents uploaded. Some have advertisements which I do not necessarily endorse.


The initial seconds of this baby with croup stridor video show the typical croupy cough. At about 0:55 it shows the stridor that many kids with croup have. Stridor is a whistling sound as the baby breathes in (often confused with wheezing, which happens when you breathe out). It is common in croup and is caused by the swelling near the voice box. (Older kids and adults who get the same viruses that cause croup in younger kids often get laryngitis from the swelling near the voice box in a larger neck.)

This ER physician of TheEDExitVideo spends the first couple of minutes discussing what causes croup. At 2:27 sounds of stridor in an otherwise happy looking baby are shown. At 3:44 is a picture showing intercostal retractions (also seen with wheezing or other types of respiratory distress).

Dry Cough

Dry cough can be from an irritation in the throat, asthma, acid reflux, or any common cold. It can also come from a habit cough (often seen after an illness and goes away with sleep only to return when awake).


Laryngomalacia wasn't on my original list because it isn't from a virus or bacteria causing illness, but it is a cause of noisy breathing in infants. It is caused by floppy tissues near the voice box (i.e. larynx). Linden's Laryngomalacia - 3 Months shows this breathing. It is often worst when baby is excited or fussy.

For more information on this (even a video of a scope into the airway), check out Children's Hospital of Philidelphia's Laryngomalacia page. 


The cough with pneumonia can sound like a wet cough or dry cough, so no specific videos are for this cause of cough. The clues to pneumonia include a fever with cough, difficulty breathing between coughs, shallow breathing, shortness of breath with brief exertion, pain in the chest, rapid breathing, or vomiting after cough. Pneumonia can be caused from viruses and bacteria and can range in severity. Walking pneumonia generally means that the person is not sick enough to require hospitalization. Some pneumonias lead to severe difficulty breathing and require oxygen support.

Wet Cough

Wet cough can be from pneumonia or bronchitis, but also from postnasal drip with a common cold or allergies.

When kids "cough stuff up" it is usually the postnasal drip being coughed up, not mucus from the lungs coming up. The same is true if they "cough up blood". This blood is usually from a bloody nose draining into the throat, not from lung tissue. (Note: bloody mucus can be from more serious causes and if your child has no signs of blood in the nose or is otherwise ill, he should be properly assessed by a physician.) 


Wheezing is typical in asthma (and bronchiolitis). Many parents mistake the upper airway congestion sound that many kids make with postnasal drip as wheezing. Wheezing can sound like a whistle as a child breathes out. Ethan's wheezing shows a baby with noisy breathing without distress. This Wheezing - Lung Sounds Collection video has the sounds one would hear with a stethoscope, but if you put your ear against your child's back (without a shirt) you might be able to hear them. If you don't hear wheezing, but your child is struggling to breathe, it does not mean there is no wheezing! Treat like you would if you hear the wheeze.


Asthma Attack in a child starts with information on asthma, then at 1:50 video of what retractions look like. 

Asthma attack shows the typical short breathing in phase with long exhale seen with an asthma attack. Also you can see the airway pulling in at the neck (retractions).

Bronchiolitis, often simply called RSV, but caused by many viruses

Bronchiolitis Cough, 3.5 months old shows a baby with a wet sounding cough, typical of bronchiolitis. 

Bronchiolitis is a video from the ER physician Dr Oller. He reviews causes of bronchiolitis, how it's spread, and how it affects the body. At 1:40 he discusses the natural progression of the simple cold into bronchiolitis. At 3:04 there is a picture of how we collect a nasal swab to help with diagnose of any viral illness.

Sick with Bronchilitis shows an infant with suprasternal retractions (sucking in at the base of the neck) and the typical cough associated with bronchiolitis. The man erroneously says "croupy", see below for croup.

RSV and Infant Treatment shows the best treatment for babies with RSV (or any bronchitis): suctioning. Some babies need this deep suctioning in the doctor's office or hospital. Others can get by with nasal aspirating at home. (Note, the next blog will be about treatments, but I have to say here that the bulb syringe is fairly useless for this.)

Whooping Cough

Pertussis - Whooping Cough: A Family's Story is an informational video on pertussis with the classic whooping cough in a child and pictures of a newborn with pertussis.

Silence the Sounds of Pertussis - Whooping Cough is a commercial for vaccinating, but it starts with the typical whooping cough sound.

Pertussis (whooping cough) shows a young infant with a cough from pertussis. Young infants do not always whoop, they stop breathing.

8 Year Old With Pertussis (Whooping Cough) shows a typical cough for an older child. Her positioning in front of the toilet shows that these kids often vomit from the force of the cough. The 2nd video from this same girl shows how normal and healthy kids can appear between episodes.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Update on generic Methylphenidate HCl ER (name brand = Concerta)

My previous post on Generic Concerta has been very popular, but it has so many updates that it has become difficult to read. I'd like to highlight the important points to make it easier for all.

What makes Concerta unique?

Concerta is the branded formulation of methylphenidate HCl Extended Release that has a unique time release system. This time release technology is called OROS (osmotic controlled release oral delivery system).  Unlike many slow releasing medications that are released as the capsule parts dissolve, the OROS capsule doesn't dissolve. The medicine is slowly released through a small hole in one end of the capsule. The pill works like a pump, pulling in water from the intestines, pushing the medicine out of the tube slowly throughout the day. This allows for a consistent drug release. See this photo from Medscape:

The companies that make the OROS pills include the original maker, now Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and Actavis (formerly Watson). They are marked with "alza" and the number signifying the strength. They have a distinctive marking on one end that is the exit port (as above).
photo source: goodrx.com

see the "exit port"

What generics are available?

There are now several generic extended release Methylphenidate HCl ER formulations approved by the FDA to substitute for Concerta. Generics must have the same active ingredient, but can vary with how it is made and the fillers.

One company, Actavis (formerly Watson), makes an OROS Methylphenidate HCl generic. It is the same OROS pill as the branded pill, but it is sold as an authorized generic. These look identical to the pictures above.

I'm sure more generics will be made, but the two companies that make a non-OROS generic are Mallinkrodt and Kremers Urban. It is easy to see that the pills of each of these are different from the OROS above.

For more information on authorized vs true generics, visit ADHD Rollercoaster's blog on the subject.

From Kremers Urban:

photos from http://www.kremersurban.com/products/Product_Details.aspx?ProdName=MetaT&ProdID=62175-311-37

How will my child react to different formulations?

This is a difficult question because everyone responds to medicines differently. For some people the formulations that are not OROS might work better. For some either might work well. For others they might respond best to the one with OROS. It is important to know which brand is taken so that if there are variances in how it works you can identify if it might be due to a change in the formulation.

What can I do if my child is not tolerating a new formulation?

There are several things to do if your child is not responding well to a new formulation.

  • Identify which brand and strength it is and write it down in a place you will remember so you won't buy it again. Keep a list of all medications and general reactions (both good and bad) in case of future issues. 
  • Tell the prescribing physician about the reaction and be sure to let them know the brand your child did well with and the one that has negative effects. Your physician might not know about the different generics available, so let them know it is not the OROS pill. Otherwise they might assume a higher strength will fix the issue, and your child might not need that higher strength, just a different time release. Ask your physician to write "OROS only" on the prescription. State laws vary about how they must do this. A nice summary is found on the Epilepsy.com. (We are not specifically taught these things in medical school or residency, so you might need to share state laws with your physician.)
  • Tell the pharmacy that the medication they substituted is not working and see if they can exchange for the brand your child was previously doing well on. You might need to go "up the chain" at a big name pharmacy, since the local pharmacists don't have much say in what is purchased for the company. (They likely won't be able to substitute, but after enough phone calls to the pharmacists who might complain to the administrators, and directly to the people responsible for choosing the company through which they order, they might reconsider the substitution.)
  • Tell the pharmacy you will take all your business elsewhere because you cannot buy their substitution. Local "mom and pop" pharmacies are more likely to order your preference than any chain pharmacy. You might pay more, but if you can afford it and your child's response is better, it might be worth it.
  • Call ahead before picking up prescriptions. Ask the pharmacy which type of methylphenidate HCl ER they have for the strength you need. (It may vary between 18mg, 27mg, 36mg, etc.) Let them know you will or will not be filling at their store based on what they stock. 
  • See if your insurance company participates with a mail order pharmacy. Be sure that they use the OROS pills BEFORE getting a 90 day supply. Mail orders are often less expensive options, so it might be helpful if you are unable to find a generic OROS pill and must buy the name brand. Keep in mind that shipping time will delay getting the medicine, so think ahead and schedule your ADHD visits to get new prescriptions about 2 weeks before you need the refill!
  • Tell your insurance company about the issue. They are contracting with pharmacies for certain formularies, and if they don't know that their clients don't like a particular brand, they will keep going for the cheapest contract. They still might because money talks, but keep pressuring them!
  • Tell your HR department if your insurance through the office requires you to use a certain formulary drug or particular pharmacy that purchases a brand your child does not thrive on. They can take this into consideration when renegotiating contracts. Again, this only works if a big enough number of people complain.
  • Ask your physician if he would be willing to write a letter to your insurance company on your behalf.
  • Report adverse events to MedWatch. This can help everyone if they hear enough complaints. You can read about the program then click on the consumer - friendly reporting form. From that link click on the "consumer/patient" button on the right. This is how the FDA learns of drug problems. Hopefully if enough people submit reports they will look into the issue. They have looked at data from each of the generic companies prior to approving the distribution of these pills and they found the data supportive that the medicines were equivalent. They need to hear post-marketing concerns from use in real people.
  • Share information. Many people are struggling with new formulations and they don't realize why. 
  • UPDATE May 1, 2014: I'm excited to see that the FDA has the generics this on their watch list. Gina Pera's "We Did It! Concerta Generics on FDA Watch List" gives a great summary of how the process works and what we can all do to continue the fight. 
  • UPDATE Nov. 16, 2014: Generics that are non-OROS will no longer be automatically substituted. They will still be available. See ADHD Roller Coaster's blog on the topic for details.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Holidays and family spoiled by illness... It's that time of year!

It is Thanksgiving morning as I write this. I am enjoying my quiet time as the family sleeps in. Extra time to blog because I'm not cooking today ... more on that later.
illness, flu, cold, cough, antibiotics, earache, ear infection, infections, flu vaccine
Wash hands to help prevent illness!

Yesterday was a typical day in our office for a day before a holiday. Sick kids came in with parents hoping for an insta-cure so they could enjoy the holiday with the extended family. A few wanted to fly back home with a febrile child and wanted our okay -- but of course didn't get it because even on an antibiotic they could spread illness if it is a virus, which most illnesses are. Some parents just called in because they were already out of town when their child got sick and they wanted to know what will make them better before the turkey celebration.

I'm sure most parents knew deep down that the answer would be "time". There is no insta-cure for most illnesses. Anyone with fever, cough, sore throat, or other ill symptoms should be kept away from the festivities. Even if the fever goes down with a fever reducer. Even if the last fever was before bed last night and it's down this morning. Fever can wax and wane and one needs to be fever-free (without a medication to bring it down) for 24 hours before we really consider it gone. People are most contagious when they are running a fever and the first few days of illness.

It stinks. I know. As a parent with a teen who has had a cough for over a week and is sleeping a disrupted 16-18 hours a day, I will miss Thanksgiving with extended family to avoid the spread of illness. Could we go? Sure. He hasn't run a fever all week. He's old enough that he can wash hands, cough into his elbow, and stay out of everyone's way. But he'd be miserable. And if one of the little ones got sick, I'd feel awful. Even if they got it elsewhere, I'd wonder if it was from him.

So I get it. It really stinks. Family from Tennessee and California are in town. We rarely see them and I want the cousins to get to know one another. But my teen isn't feeling well and I don't want the cousins to feel this way. I haven't started him on antibiotics to make him better faster because I know they wouldn't work. We are using a humidifier, lots of sleep, and waiting. He's refusing the nasal wash unfortunately... but I keep offering it!

This holiday season I wish everyone health, but if someone is sick, stay home. Don't spread the germs.

For more information on treating illnesses, see these links:

Cough and colds
Ear pain and infections
Wheezing in infants
Vomiting and diarrhea
Pink eye and other red eyes
Strep throat
Painful urination
Cough Medicines: Which One's Best?
Evolution of Illness

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Urgent cares for routine illnesses ... yes or no?

photo source: Shutterstock
Every day I review reports from urgent cares that my patients visit outside our office. I know many parents go because they are worried about their sick child and want them to be seen immediately.

Some may not realize that our office has extended walk in hours ~ we are often open when they go to these urgent cares.

Or they might simply find it more convenient to go to the corner clinic near their house.

Other parents do not want to miss work (or let their kids miss school) so they go after hours to an urgent care clinic (despite our extended hours).

Sometimes there is a financial incentive for the family with a lesser copay at a walk in clinic because of the insurance contract with that company. (Don't get me started on the reasons that makes my blood boil...)

Urgent cares and emergency rooms are designed to quickly evaluate and treat patients with significant illnesses and injuries. They do not have the luxury of follow up, so they tend to err on caution and do more labs, x-rays, and prescriptions than primary care offices. This not only exposes kids to more medications, excess lab draws and x-ray radiation, but it costs parents more money. (Even if your plan doesn't require you to pay for that specific test, you pay for it through your premiums.) Although urgent cares cost less than emergency rooms, many are finding that costs are still well above those at a primary care office.

Most often visits are for things that could have been taken care of in the primary care office without all the added tests and treatments. A common visit to an urgent care is for ear pain. Often when kids are diagnosed with an ear infection, they leave the urgent care with a prescription for an antibiotic despite the fact that the large majority of these infections are caused by a virus and antibiotics are not effective against viruses. I suspect that part of the reason patients leave with a prescription and fill it right away is the urgent care wants to get patients in and out quickly. There's an ear infection and it's easier to just write a prescription for an antibiotic than it is to explain why it is okay to treat symptoms at home without a prescription for a few days first. They also don't have access to the past medical history and vaccine records, which can impact treatment choices, so they must be more cautious and treat.

And parents are happy. They "got something" for their visit.

Another common ER or urgent care visit is for fever or cough. At these visits they often get a chest x-ray and labs.

And parents are happy because "something was done" at the visit.

At the primary care office labs or x-rays might be done on occasion, but it is less typical. A good history of illness and physical exam usually can identify the most likely diagnosis. Instructions on how to manage the illness and when to follow up can be discussed.

And yes, this does cause less patient satisfaction sometimes because they didn't "get something" for their visit. What they got was an assessment, a diagnosis, a treatment plan of things to do at home to treat symptoms, and instructions on how to monitor for worsening of symptoms. Nothing tangible, but very worthwhile!

Unfortunately, many parents see excess testing and treatment as good care and don't realize that it is the inexperience of the provider who is over treating. An experienced pediatric-trained primary care provider would not need all this testing to be comfortable making a diagnosis and watching the patient over time without prescription treatments.

Even a provider with years of experience in an urgent care setting does not have the experience of watching a patient over time without interventions. They never get to see patients get better on their own. They never get that opportunity to learn from their patients. They learn in training to evaluate and treat, then send patients out the door (or in for admission). That's what they do.

A big issue I alluded to above is patient satisfaction. Urgent care and emergency room physicians and midlevel providers are often under pressure to make patients happy, which includes doing tests and giving prescriptions ~ after all, that's what the patient paid for, right? {sarcasm} 
My concern is that higher patient satisfaction scores are NOT associated with better care. Conversely, they have been associated with higher healthcare costs, increased prescription drug costs, and even higher mortality. (The Cost of SatisfactionA National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality)
 Even my patients who have seen me for years might be uncomfortable the first time they leave with a diagnosis of ear infection and are told to NOT use an antibiotic right away. I don't get blood work just because a child started with a fever today. My patient families know me. We've developed a trusted relationship, so they listen to my advice. They learn that it is okay to not do labs or start antibiotics because I take the time to explain what is going on, what is to be expected as things progress, and what to look for if the child's condition worsens. They know how to contact me or the on call provider if needed.

I know that Americans enjoy the convenience of walk in centers at every drugstore. I understand that there are situations when kids are so sick they need to be seen after hours. But I also encourage parents to consider if waiting until regular business hours is appropriate for whatever is causing their child to be sick. Never wait if it is a real emergency. But if your child can be managed safely at home with pain relievers, saline, humidifying the air, massage, rocking, or whatever fits the symptoms, please use your child's medical home when they open. There your child will be well cared for, records will be complete at the primary care office, and there will be less over testing and treatment.

I have blogged before about the benefits of going to your medical home  and when to see your PCP. I continue to stand behind the idea of patients going to their medical home for most visits because I feel you get better care and more personalized service, even if you see a different provider within the office. We have the ability to update your child's records, see past treatments, know your child's immunization status and have record of any allergies. We have the luxury of having you follow up so we know if things resolve or if further evaluation and treatment is needed. We don't need to order every test and treatment on the first visit, because most of the time they aren't needed. We might ask that you bring your child back in a short time to re-examine and see how the symptoms change. (For more on the value of repeated exams, see Evolution of Illness.) We will walk you through your child's illness if you come to us!

March 2014 Update: For an interesting read on how some doctors must overprescribe to get high rankings, see Patient Satisfaction is Overrated.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Private discussions with the pediatrician

photo source: Shutterstock
Every once in awhile a parent will tell the nurse that they want the child out of the room to discuss an issue with with the doctor privately. This is usually something they perceive as a negative thing for the child to hear, such as the child being overweight or having behavior problems.

While I understand the parent's intentions, I find this to be disruptive and counter productive. As much as I try to find an excuse to have a child leave, it is usually obvious that the nurse keeps them out longer than needed.

If we have the child leave the room, he knows something is up. We are talking about him. But not sharing with him. What could possibly be so bad that we won't talk to him about it? (How do you feel when you suspect people are talking about you?)

Then there's the issue of any patient needs to know what the issue is so we can address it. My guess is most of these kids already know what the concerns are. They need help working on them. If they are overweight, we need to talk about what they eat, how they exercise, and how they sleep. If it's behavior problems, they need to give insight into how they feel and what leads to the behaviors. They need to be a part of the plan to fix the problems. If they aren't on board, they won't change their habits. I can talk about weight (or behavior, or drugs, or whatever the concern is) sensitively and in an age appropriate manner with the child. The kids at school are likely talking about it in a not-so-sensitive manner, so it's best to not make it worse by secretly discussing it.

If a parent really wants to let a physician know specific points without the child present, find a way to do that outside of a visit with the child.
Send in a letter or secure electronic message with your concerns before the appointment. Be sure it's at least a few days before the appointment so the doctor has a chance to review it!

Schedule a consult appointment for just parents to come in without the child.
Call in advance to tell the phone nurse your concerns so she can pass it on to the physician.

Don't bring siblings to an appointment where you want to discuss a private matter about another child.

All of these means allow the physician (or other provider) to know your concerns without blatantly kicking a child out to talk about something privately.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lip Licker's Dermatitis: AKA Chapped Lips

photo source: Wikipedia Commons
As the leaves fall and the wind blows, I know that I will start seeing kids with smiles bigger than life due to red swollen chapped lips. Parents frequently bring kids in year after year with this "recurrent rash" that comes every dry season and goes away (or at least improves) in the Spring.

Dry lips are a problem that tends to worsen with the treatment that comes most naturally: licking your lips. Saliva contains enzymes that break down food you eat -- or the lips you are licking. It also damages regular skin, so the skin around the lips dries if licked, the skin on the neck and chest are affected in droolers,  and thumbs or fingers can get really chapped if they are sucked this time of year. The same theories discussed below can be used to treat other dry skin worsened by saliva.

What can help?

First, stop licking your lips! I know that's easier said than done, especially for kids with a strong licking habit. If you catch them licking, offer a lip balm or suggest that they drink some water. Remember to praise them if they make a choice to do anything other than lick!

Adding humidity to the air helps and doesn't require child participation (since they resist so much of what we do). Even if you have a whole-home humidifier, add a vaporizer or humidifier to the bedrooms each night. Be sure to keep it clean and out of reach of little hands.

Everyone should drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Seal in moisture with a lip balm or ointment. Ingredients such as shea butter, lanolin, petrolatum, sunflower seed oil, squalane, and vitamin E are common. Products with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or sodium PCA also have been shown to help. The more often they are applied, the better they work, so try to keep them available throughout the day. (This might require talking to teachers to allow it to be freely available at school.) Waxes are good to avoid dry lips, but don't help as much as a moisturizing product once the lips are already dry. Avoid products with eucalyptus, menthol, or camphor because they can increase dryness and irritation. Since flavored lip products might encourage licking lips, I suggest you avoid them. Use one with sunscreen when outdoors. Keep the balm handy throughout the day and be sure to apply after brushing teeth before bed. To avoid sharing germs, everyone should have his own, and I prefer sticks versus anything you dip your fingers into.  It is okay to apply the balm or ointment to the skin surrounding the lips if needed-- for those kids who have a wide area they lick around the lips!

Many parents ask if their kids will become addicted to the lip balm. Simple answer: No. They might use it more frequently as they get used to the idea of using it instead of licking their lips when they feel dry, but that is a good habit, not an addictive behavior. As soon as the weather warms up, we don't feel our lips being as dry, so we use the balm less often.

Avoid evaporation. Mouth breathing dries the lips, so try to get kids to breathe through their nose. Keep the wind off the lips with a scarf. The wind increases the evaporation of water from the skin, drying it out.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

To Tamiflu or Not To Tamiflu...

photo source: Shutterstock
During flu season we have many requests for Tamiflu (oseltamivir) because of flu exposure or disease. I have rarely complied with these requests, though in recent years more often due to the powers that set the guidelines recommending it more. It is more common in my experience to hear negative feedback about side effects than it is to see patients get better faster. (Note: this is a very biased view, since those who are better would not call, but since so many call with side effects it seems fair to say I don't like the drug.)

I am not alone in my dislike of Tamiflu. I follow a listserv of pediatricians around the country and many share my views. A recent topic thread on treatment of flu has peaked my interest. One doctor suggested watching a TED Talk by Dr. Ben Goldacre: What doctor's don't know about the drugs they prescribe.  Dr. Goldacre starts talking about Tamiflu specifically about 10:10, but the entire lecture is done in an entertaining and informative manner if you have the time.

I feel deceived. When I practice medicine, I follow standard recommendations and guidelines that are based on peer reviewed articles and data. The question is, what important data is left out? There is a movement to solve this problem of unpublished studies. You can see updates at the Tamiflu Campaign of the British Medical Journal.

Back to influenza treatment...

First, current influenza treatment guidelines regarding the use of antivirals: 

The current guidelines basically say every child should be considered a candidate for an antiviral treatment. I understand the reasoning behind the first two conditions of antiviral use (except that studies don't really support even those indications), but I am very confused about the third highlighted below.

(from http://aapnews.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/09/02/aapnews.20130902-1)

Treatment should be offered for:
  • any child hospitalized with presumed influenza or with severe, complicated or progressive illness attributable to influenza, regardless of influenza immunization status; and
  • influenza infection of any severity in children at high risk of complications of influenza.
Treatment should be considered for:
  • any otherwise healthy child with influenza infection for whom a decrease in duration of clinical symptoms is felt to be warranted by his or her pediatrician; the greatest impact on outcome will occur if treatment can be initiated within 48 hours of illness onset.

Then look at what a search for "unpublished tamiflu trials" shows.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Cochrane group, I need to take a quick sideline. They are a well respected group that reviews all the studies within certain parameters on one topic to evaluate the overall findings of several independent studies. 

From the Cochrane Group: A review of unpublished regulatory information from trials of neuraminidase inhibitors (Tamiflu - oseltamivir and Relenza - zanamivir) for influenza. These results are from a review of published and unpublished studies that they could find. From the abstract: "The authors have been unable to obtain the full set of clinical study reports or obtain verification of data from the manufacturer of oseltamivir (Roche) despite five requests between June 2010 and February 2011. No substantial comments were made by Roche on the protocol of our Cochrane Review which has been publicly available since December 2010. 

They found several problems with Tamiflu from the studies they were able to review:

  • Drug manufacturers sponsored the trials, leading to publication and reporting biases. One of the authors reported that 60% of the data was never published. This is over half of the research, and I suspect it didn't support use of the medicine (remember the company that benefits from selling the medicine was doing the trials...)
  • There was no decrease in hospitalization rate for influenza in people treated with Tamiflu.
  • There was not enough evidence of prevention of complications from influenza. Design of the trials (again by the people who make the drug) did not report the prevention of complications from influenza, such as secondary infections.
  • There is not evidence in the trials to support that Tamiflu reduces spread of the virus. One of the main reasons people request the medication is after exposure to prevent illness! (Note: this might have changed because the indications on the package insert now say it can be used to prevent illness in those over 1 year of age and they were previously not allowed to mention prophylaxis.) 
  • Tamiflu reduced symptoms by 21 hours. Yep. Less than one day of fewer symptoms. For the cost of the drug and the potential side effects, is feeling sick for 1 day less really worth it? 
  • There was a decreased rate of being diagnosed with influenza in those randomized to get Tamiflu, probably due to an altered antibody response. The authors suspect a body becomes less able to make its own antibodies against influenza when taking Tamiflu. 
  • Side effects were not well documented.

A review study done in children exclusively Neuraminidase inhibitors for treatment and prophylaxis of influenza in children: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials focused on treatment of disease and prevention of illness after exposure. Findings included:

  • Symptom duration decreased between 0.5 and 1.5 days, but only significantly reduced symptoms in 2 of 4 trials. That means in 2 of 4 trials there was no significant reduction in symptoms.
  • Prophylaxis after exposure decreased incidence by 8% of symptomatic influenza. This means for every 13 people given Tamiflu to prevent disease, one case will be prevented. Not great odds.
  • Treatment was not associated with an overall decrease in antibiotic use, suggesting it did not alter the complication of bacterial secondary infections.
  • Tamiflu was associated with in increased risk of vomiting. About 1 in 20 children treated with Tamiflu had an increased risk of vomiting over the baseline vomiting due to influenza.
  • There was little effect on the number of asthma exacerbations or ear infections by treating influenza with Tamiflu.

So what do I recommend during the cold and flu season?

  1. Get vaccinated! The influenza vaccines have been shown to help prevent influenza and are very well tolerated with few side effects. If you or your children are due for other vaccines, be sure to get caught up.
  2. If you get sick, stay home until you're fever free without the use of a fever reducer for at least 24 hours! Don't spread the illness to others by going to work or school. The influenza virus is spread for several days, starting the day before your symptoms start until 5-7 days after symptoms start-- kids may be contagious for even longer. You are most contagious the days you have a fever.
  3. Wash hands well and frequently. If you can't use soap and water, use hand sanitizer.
  4. Cover your cough and sneeze with your elbow or a tissue.
  5. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. But remember that people spread the virus before they feel the first symptoms, so anyone is a potential culprit!
  6. Don't share food, drinks, or towels (such as after brushing teeth to wipe your mouth) with others. 
  7. Don't touch your eyes, nose, and mouth -- these are the portals for germs to get into your body. 
  8. Keep infants away from large crowds during the sick season.
  9. Frequently clean objects that get a lot of touches, such as keyboards, phones, doorknobs, refrigerator handle, etc.
  10. Avoid smoke. It irritates the airway and makes it easier to get sick.
  11. Remember that many germs make us sick during the flu season. Just because you've been sick once doesn't mean you won't catch the next bug that comes around. Use precautions all year long!
Because the guidelines recommend Tamiflu as above, I will probably be forced to prescribe it by worried parents who hope that their kids will feel better. (You've heard of defensive medicine, right?) 

Influenza is a miserable illness. The key is prevention. I've had my vaccine, how about you? 

Further Reading:

Neuraminidase inhibitors for preventing and treating influenza in healthy adults and children: A link is available to the full text of the study by T Jefferson, MA Jones, P Doshi, CB Del Mar, CJ Heneghan, R Hama, and MJ Thompson.

Update 2016:

There continues to be a lot of confusion about unpublished studies. Investigators have documented their discussions with the maker of Tamiflu on Tamiflu correspondence with Roche.

Recent studies have tried to compile all that is known about how oseltamivir works:
Results from this study include:
  • In the treatment of adults, oseltamivir reduced the time to first alleviation of symptoms by 16.7 hours, 29 hours in children.
  • There was no difference in rates of admission to hospital between treatment groups in both adults and children.
  • Oseltamivir relieves symptoms in otherwise healthy children but has no effect on children with asthma who have influenza-like illness.
  • Oseltamivir had no significant effect on admissions to the hospital.
  • Oseltamivir causes gastrointestinal disturbances in both prophylaxis and treatment roles. In prophylaxis, it caused headaches, renal events (especially decreased creatinine clearance), and psychiatric effects. 

Update 2016/2017 Season:

The CDC recommendations for the use of antiviral medications remain essentially unchanged.

I have heard early reports that this year's flu vaccine is about 60% effective, but it is too early in the season to be sure. For up to date information on this season's flu, check out the CDC website.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Cough Medicine: Which one's best?

This is the time of year I get a lot of requests for an over the counter cough suppressant suggestion or a prescription cough medicine for kids so they can sleep. Despite my attempts at educating the family about why I don't recommend any cough medicines, many parents are upset leaving without a medicine. I have collected numerous articles that show why I treat cough the way I do. Links are included throughout this blog. Click away to learn more!

First, a little background...

Most cough medicines were studied in adults and the dosing for kids was calculated from the adult dosage. Kids are not small adults. Their bodies handle illness and metabolize drugs differently. But few studies have been done to show if medicines work at all, and if they do, what the best dose is for kids of various ages and sizes.

In 2008 the FDA stated that toddlers and babies should not use cold and cough medicines. Drug makers voluntarily changed the labeling of over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products, recommending them only for children aged 4 and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no reason that parents should use them in children under age 6 because of the risks without benefit. Despite this, studies show that 60% of parents of children under 2 years have given a cough and cold medicine. Why? In my opinion, they are desperate to help their child and don't think it is enough risk to not at least try.

cough, cold, medicine, sick, child

I know it is frustrating when your child is up all night coughing. It is frustrating when my kids and I are up all night coughing. But you know what we do in my house?

  • Humidify the air of the bedroom (unless it's a spring or summer cough)
  • Extra water to drink all day
  • Honey before bedtime in an herbal tea (No honey before 1 year of age!)
  • Encourage cough during the day to help clear the airways
  • Nasal rinse with saline (I love this, but my family is not so keen on it)
  • Sleep with water next to the bed to sip on all night long (even when I still had bedwetters)
  • Back rubs, hugs, kisses, reminders that it will get better, etc
  • Nap during the day as needed to catch up on lost sleep
  • Watch for signs of wheezing or distress

That's about it for the cough. If something hurts, we use a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. We use those only if something hurts, not just because and not for fever without discomfort.

Why don't I give my family cough medicines?

Because they don't work.

The OTC options:

A Cochrane Review in 2007 was done to look at over the counter cough medicine effectiveness in both children and adults. These reviews look at many studies and analyze the data. Unfortunately there are very few studies, and many were of poor quality because they relied on patient report. In studies that included children, they found:

  • Antitussives were no more effective than placebo for kids. (one study) In adults codeine was no more effective than placebo. Two studies showed a benefit to dextromethorphan, but another study did not, so mixed results.
  • Expectorants had NO studies done in children. In adults guaifenesin compared to placebo did not show a statistically different response. 
  • Mucolytics more effective than placebo from day 4-10 in kids. (one study) In adults cough frequency was decreased on days 4 and 8 of the cough. (Note: I am not sure what OTC mucolytic was studied. I am only aware of pulmozyme and mucomyst, both used by prescription in children with cystic fibrosis.)
  • Antihistamine-decongestant combinations offered no benefit over placebo. (2 studies) One of two studies showed benefit in adults. The other did not.
  • Antihistamine shows no benefit over placebo. (one study) In adults antihistamines did not help either.

Another Cochrane Review in 2012 once again failed to show any real benefits of cough medicines, especially given the risks of side effects.

What about some specific studies on OTC medicines? I cannot report them all here, but here's a few:

A study comparing dextromethorphan (the DM in many cough medicines), diphenhydramine (AKA benadryl), and placebo in 2004 showed no difference in effectiveness of controlling cough for sleep. That means the placebo worked just as well as the medicines. Insomnia was more common in those who got dextromethorphan.

Does guaifenesin help? It is thought to thin mucus to help clear the airways. It does not stop the cough. Studies vary in effectiveness and are typically done in adults, but it may be helpful in children over 4 years of age. Do not use combination cough medicines though, for all the reasons above.

In 2007 honey was shown to be a more effective treatment than dextromethorphan or no treatment. Another study in 2012 showed benefit with 2 tsp of honey 30 minutes before bedtime. A side effect of honey? Cavities... Be sure to brush teeth after the honey!

What side effects and other problems are there from over the counter cough medicines?

As stated above, the dosages for children were extrapolated from studies in adults. Children metabolize differently, so the appropriate dosage is not known for children. Taking too much cold medicine can produce dangerous side effects, including shallow breathing and death.

Many cough medicines have more than one active ingredient. This can increase the risk of overdosing. It also contributes to excess medicines given for problems that are not present. For instance if there is a pain reliever plus cough suppressant, your child gets both medicines even if he only has pain or a cough. Always choose medicines with one active ingredient.

Accidentally giving a child a too much medicine can be easy to do. Parents might use two different brands of medicine at the same time, not realizing they contain the same ingredients. Or they can measure incorrectly with a spoon or due to a darkened room. Or one parent forgets to say when the medicine was given and the other parent gives another dose too soon. 

And then there's non-accidental overdose. There is significant abuse potential: One in 20 teens has used over the counter cough medicines to get high. Another great reason to keep them out of the house!

Side effects of cough medicines include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Impaired physical coordination
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness of fingers and toes
  • Disorientation
  • Death, especially in children under 2 years of age and those with too high of a dose

What about prescription cough suppressants? 

In 1993 a study comparing dextromethorphan or codeine to placebo showed that neither was better than the placebo. Codeine belongs to a class of medications called opiate analgesics and to a class of medications called antitussives. When codeine is used to reduce coughing, it works by decreasing the activity in the part of the brain that causes coughing. It can make breathing too shallow in children. Codeine has several serious side effects which could be life threatening in children. Combination products with codeine and promethazine (AKA phenergan with codeine) should never be used in children under 16 years. In my opinion, why use it in older children and adults, since it hasn't been shown to work?

How about antibiotics for the cough?

Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial causes of cough (such as some pneumonia or sinusitis illnesses) but antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which cause most coughs. If your child has a cold, antibiotics won't help.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Insurance Confusion. Please read and submit your comments!

I love my job. There are so many things to love, including helping kids get well and watching families grow together. Pediatricians get few instant gratifications, but many overall satisfactions of knowing we make a difference in the lives of children. (Warm heart!)

I knew there would be stresses to my job. All jobs have stress, and I expect things like

  • time away from family working on weekends and holidays.
  • sleep loss when there are urgencies or emergencies when I'm on call.
  • sleep loss when there is a call about a non-urgency. (I do dislike those quite a bit, and yes, they do happen. Please respect our sleep and call during business hours for routine questions.)
  • having to give bad news to a family of a very ill child.
  • hearing stories of bad social situations and not being able to help immediately.
But one of the biggest stressors for me has nothing to do with the above. It has to do with billing and insurance. I keep thinking that if we educate our parents it will get better, but it doesn't. People who don't know their policy are upset about the charges left to them after the insurance company adjusts the bill and pays their portion.

Source: Shutterstock

During the summer we do a lot more physicals than other times of the year, so the end of the summer through the fall is when the phone call volume really picks up.

  • If I knew there would be a charge for the autism screen I wouldn't have done it. Two autistic children recently diagnosed had a delayed diagnosis because parents refused the screen due to cost. Both families said they had no worries so didn't want the screening... so not screening isn't the answer.
  • If I knew there would be a charge for the depression screen I wouldn't have let my teen take it. One of these complaints was a parent of a teen with a positive screen. The child was depressed and the parent hadn't suspected it. It is sad that even a positive screening is not worth the cost to a family due to financial circumstances, but every dollar is important for people paying bills. Yes, our health insurance system is broken!
  • You should have told me there would be a charge for the ear infection treatment. They usually still want treatment for any sick symptoms. And I did warn them by email and the note posted in the exam room, but they usually say they were too busy to read it.
  • I didn't know the lung function test wouldn't be covered by insurance. Neither did I. I don't have your insurance contract.
  • I didn't know there would be a charge for ear wax removal. I couldn't see your toddler's eardrum. With that runny nose and poor sleep, it was important to remove the wax to see the eardrum.
  • The list goes on...
I think the business of medicine stresses me more than the medicine because it is not what I'm trained to do. We have a business office that handles our billing and collections. I really don't want to get involved in that too much. It is a slippery slope. A big concern of mine is that I don't want to get involved in the billing because I don't want it to alter the way I practice in a negative way. Yes, I need to know the issues so our office can develop procedures to limit costs to families. I do believe that is important. But I don't want to follow medical practice guidelines on a subset of patients who can afford it and not do the recommended care for those who can't. If I do these services only for people who can pay for them (or those who know insurance covers the cost), I am not practicing good medicine for everyone. 

Guidelines are made by committees of well educated people who review all of the data and come up with the best ways to manage various issues. They recommend when we should do things, such as depression screenings, lead screenings, asthma follow up, get an X-ray, use a prescription medicine, and more. If I don't follow those guidelines simply because of cost, I am not providing great care. I only want to provide the best care. 

And if you bring up a concern at a well visit and I remind you that to discuss it might incur a charge to you, am I medically liable for not addressing it when you decide you no longer want to talk about it? It certainly won't get documented in the medical record, which means when you ask about it at a future visit I won't remember you mentioning it before. This can compromise good care because there isn't a good record of symptoms that could have been available if it was properly addressed at the visit. 

Our office really does try to help people with medical insurance issues.

On one hand, we try to limit costs to people. 

  • If one drug is usually expensive, we try to order a cheaper option. (But we never know your formulary, they are all different and change often!)
  • If I know a referral to a specialist probably won't result in any treatment that I can't offer, I will recommend against it. (If I think the specialist can offer more than me, then I am happy to refer so your child will get the best care. But don't call me when they charged more than you thought they should. Call them.)
  • Our office offers extended hours so people don't have to go to the emergency department or urgent care (usually insurance charges you more for those services). 
  • I try to talk parents out of vision screening in my office because if their insurance only pays for one per year I want it done by an eye specialist, not me! (See the 2nd scenario for more on this one.)
On the other hand, we try to anticipate and tell people in advance that insurance plans vary, and it is their responsibility to know their plan.
  • We have a page dedicated to insurance on our website.
  • Each of our well visit pages on our website reminds parents to check insurance.
  • Before every well visit all patients registered on our web portal get an email with many important things regarding the upcoming well visit, including insurance issues.
  • We have signs posted in each exam room reminding parents that separate issues discussed might incur a separate charge based on insurance.
  • I post about insurance issues frequently on our Facebook page.
  • I blog about this issue at times. Here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And of course this blog.
Yet the phone calls continue. Parents are upset about the way we charge them for things. This is misleading. Yes, the bill comes from us, but it we are only billing them what their insurance company tells us to.

Health care billing is complicated. We provide a service and apply the standard codes for each thing we do. Each code has a charge attached, based on typical payment for that code. We submit those codes to the insurance company. The insurance company adjusts the payment amounts to what our contract with them states they think are reasonable charges. Some companies allow more payment for one code, less for another. But it's not our choice how much they think is reasonable. We must write off the amount over their reasonable charge cost. The insurance company contracts with its clients to determine how much of each of those reasonable charge costs will be paid by them, and how much is the client's responsibility. We never see those contracts, so we don't know how much you will be billed at the time of service. We send the bill to the family based on what their insurance company tells us. We cannot adjust that amount -- to do so is insurance fraud. Simple as that. I'm not willing to commit fraud to decrease your bill, no matter how much I like you and understand your financial hardship.

Everyone in my office wants to provide good care, so we discuss guidelines and insurance issues in addition to other office policies and procedures on a routine basis. We review our practice for quality. We often hear complaints from staff that they want us to stop doing a recommended screening because they are tired of hearing complaints. But we continue to offer those that continue to be recommended because we care about the health of your child. We want to do what's right, not what's cheap. And I suspect that insurance will become more costly to people as the new plans roll out. Either you will pay a large premium to have more services covered, or you will pay less monthly but be expected to carry more of the load when you use services. 

Request: Please share how you think we can do it better. What are we missing? How can we better educate all of our families without spending the entire visit talking about possible charges instead of your child's health? We can't change the system (though that's the ultimate fix) but I want to know how we can make the system work better for all. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

First Period Q&A with a Tween

Over the years I've talked with many girls about what to expect during puberty. Some of the biggest questions we all have involve the mysterious first period. I have dug into the recesses of my brain to come up with all the questions asked over the years to put all the information down in one place, though I'm sure I've missed a few. (Note: I'm not going to cover the hormones and technicalities of the menstrual cycle. See the links below if you want to review those.)

If you have a daughter starting puberty, please share. Are there any other questions she has? Put them in the comments section and we'll tackle them!

puberty, period, teen

Is there a good way to know when I'll start my period the first time?
You will never know exactly when your period will start, but good clues that it is getting close to time: 
  • It's been about 2 years since your breasts started growing. (Remember those first bumps?)
  • There's clear, white, or yellow stuff in your underwear sometimes. It can look like dried boogers or just a little crusty stuff in your underwear, but it's not from being unclean or peeing in your pants. Your body is just getting ready for the full cycle of ovulation (when the egg is released) and the period. Your vagina is moistened with a clear fluid that can drain onto your underwear. Another thing you might notice is mucus is released once a month, about half way between your periods when the egg is released from your ovary once you're on a regular monthly cycle. It often begins before the period starts. As long as there is no pain or funny odor, this discharge is normal. Talk to your doctor if it does smell bad or if you hurt or itch in that area.
  • Pimples. Pimples are common with puberty (and for years following).  Many girls will notice that the pimples tend to worsen right before their period starts.

I'm too young for a period. None of my friends even have boobs! Can I stop it?
Puberty has such a wide range of normal ages so it is common for one girl to go things much sooner than her friends. Puberty is most common between 9 and 16 years of age (though some girls notice breast buds as early as 7 or 8 years old). The common age for a period to start is between 10-15 years old. If you are outside of this normal age range, talk to your doctor about it because there are many reasons. Some can be as simple as your family tree (when did your mom or sisters start?) but some can be a medical issue that can and should be treated.
And the opposite issue:  All my friends have had their periods for a long time, but I barely have boobs. When will I start?
Again, there is a wide range of normal (see the question above). Some families have a later puberty than others, so it might just be in your genes. There are other reasons that deserve talking with your doctor about, such as being underweight-- which delays puberty, and other medical issues that need an investigation to uncover a cause that might need to be treated. (That sounds like a mystery book, but your doctor will know what to do!)
Bottom line for early or late puberty: 
If you are outside the normal age range, please talk with your doctor. Don't be embarrassed to bring it up! They might either reassure you that things are still okay, or they might help find the reason and get your body the treatment it needs. Some of these can be serious problems, so don't be shy about going to the doctor. This is one reason that a yearly physical exam is especially important until growth is complete -- your doctor can help keep track of a normal growth progression.
How much blood will there be, and what does it feel like?
The amount of bleeding varies from day to day, month to month, and person to person.  It is common for the first 2 years to have irregular cycles, but many girls can begin to predict their blood flow volume pattern after a few cycles. 
Many girls have some pain during their period. The blood flow does not hurt, but as the uterus contracts it can cramp. Like other muscle cramps, there can be pain from period cramps, but the amount of pain varies in different people. Some girls have cramping with every period while others never feel anything. It is easy to take over-the-counter pain relievers (like ibuprofen or naproxen) to relieve pain. Some girls find it helpful to take ibuprofen or naproxen 2-3 times/day (per package directions) starting 3 days before the period is supposed to start to prevent the cramps. Eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, and sleeping well every night also seem to help. For severe period cramps that keep you from doing what you want (or need) to do, talk to your doctor.
What do I do if I start my first period and I don't have any pads around or I'm not at home?
First, don't panic! Remember that ALL women have periods, so it is nothing weird to adult women (or men, for that matter, since they live in a world with women). Ask a teacher, school nurse, friend's mom, aunt, or whoever is around for help. She will not judge you or get freaked out. Really. 
How long should I wear a pad or tampon?
Pads should be changed if they are visibly full or after 4 hours, whichever is first. (Except overnight.) If left on longer, they start to have a foul odor, and you don't want that!
Tampons should be changed every 2-6 hours, depending on the amount of blood flow you have that day. Tampons come in different sizes for light days, regular days, and heavy days. Don't ever wear a tampon longer than 6 hours because it can allow germs to grow and cause a serious infection. For that reason I don't recommend wearing them overnight.
Once your cycle becomes more regular, you should be able to predict the flow by the day of the period (and time of day, since that often varies too). Use a calendar to track the amount of flow as well as the days of your period until you get it all straight. Either an old fashioned paper calendar or an app designed to track periods can help. (Search for "period calendar" or "menstrual calendar" in your app store if you have a smart phone or tablet.)
What do I do with the pad or tampon after it's been used?
Most pads are disposable. You can roll it up, wrap it in a little toilet paper (or the wrap it originally came in) and throw it in the trash can. (Use a single layer, ladies! Don't be wasteful with a wad of TP!)
If you use re-usable pads, they will have to be washed before the next use. Talk to your parent about where to keep them between uses. 
Many people flush tampons down the toilet, but that can lead to clogged toilets in many sewage systems. Never flush into a toilet that uses a septic tank. Tampons do not break up like toilet paper does and they will clog a septic tank system. If you aren't sure, you can wrap it in toilet paper and throw it in the trashcan.
Never flush a plastic applicator. You can either put it back in the wrapper or wrap in toilet paper and throw it in the trash.
I leaked! Not only am I totally embarrassed that everyone will know, what do I do to clean up my underwear?
When a period first starts, it often comes without warning and underwear can get soiled. Heavy flow days can also cause leakage onto your underwear. If you expect a heavy flow day, you can wear old underwear, prepare with a product designed for heavier flow, and go to the bathroom more often to change the pad or tampon. 
Despite the best techniques, all women sometimes soil their underwear and even their outer clothes. If you can change right away, fresh blood is easier to clean than dried blood. (This goes for just about any spill in the kitchen too, so clean up as soon as you spill!)
If you're at school, go to the nurse's office. She can help and it probably won't be the first time a girl has come to her for help-- really! If you're at a friend's house, see if she has something you can borrow if you don't have an emergency change of clothes. 
In general, cold water to rinse out blood is better than hot. Because blood is made of proteins that change in heat, the heat can "cook" the blood into the clothing and make the stain permanent.  If you have laundry detergent you can put a few drops on the stain and rub it in. If you have a spray or stick stain remover, you can use that. Allow that to soak overnight in some cold water before putting in the regular laundry. 
Basic tips:
  • Carry a clean set of underwear (and pants if needed) in a plastic bag to use in case of emergency.
  • Carry a stain stick (they sell these near the laundry detergent) if desired. 
  • Rinse in cold water as soon as you can.
  • Rub stain remover or laundry detergent into the stain and let it soak. Put it in the plastic bag you carry if you aren't home.  
  • As soon as you get home put the soiled clothes in cold water (rub in more stain remover or laundry detergent as needed). Allow clothing to soak overnight. 
  • After soaking overnight, rinse in cold water. Repeat a scrub and soak in detergent if needed.
  • Once you don't see the stain any more, you can wash with the rest of your clothes like normal. 
What about when a pad won't work, like swimming or ballet? Am I too young for a tampon?
Tampons frighten a lot of girls, but they are safe to use as soon as you are comfortable using them. They do not affect your virginity. They simply are a product that will collect the blood inside you so you don't need to wear a pad on the outside. Many girls use one with their first period. Others don't use them at all. It is up to you! 
How exactly do you get the tampon in? 
First, some general anatomy. You need to know what things look like down there. You can use a hand held mirror to look at yourself and compare to this picture. This is a drawing, so you will look a little different, but you should be able to see the basic parts.
Photo source: Shutterstock

Tampons are inserted directly into the vagina. Much like an absorbent sponge, a tampon will gently swell as it becomes soaked with blood. A string allows for easy removal from the body. Tampons are convenient for swimming or exercising and can be paired with a panty liner - a type of thin pad or a regular pad for extra protection on heavy flow days. When using tampons, women should change them every 4-6 hours.  
It's time to change the tampon, but I can't find the string. Did it get lost up there somewhere? 
First: Don't panic! Your tampon is not lost forever! Sometimes the string can stick to the skin between your labia (labeled labium magus and minus above). You might need to feel around a bit. If there's a mirror nearby, you can use it to look. Sometimes going pee can help the string fall down if it is stuck around the skin somewhere. 
If the string really is up in the vagina, you can put your finger into the vagina to see if you can slip the string back out.
If you can't get the tampon out, tell an adult as soon as possible. If they can't help you get it out (or if you don't want them to try) you might have to go to the doctor to have it removed.  
NEVER forget about a tampon that has been put in... you could get a serious infection if you leave one in too long. 
I seem to always get spotting on my underwear when I wear a tampon, but the tampon isn't full of blood yet. Why is that?
There are several reasons I can think of that blood can get on your underwear. The first, of course is the tampon overflows because it was left in too long for the amount of flow you have at that time. But you can tell that when there is no more white showing on the tampon. If it isn't full, there are other reasons to consider.
First, was the blood on your skin when you put the tampon in? If you wipe after putting the tampon in, that can help this issue. Actually, more than wiping, pushing the toilet paper  (TP) up towards where the tampon is (with the string out of the way) can show if there's blood in the area. Repeat until the TP is clean. You can also wipe the folds of skin with a flushable wet wipe (sold near the other feminine hygiene products or near the diaper wipes -- same concept: wiping with a wet cloth works better than dry TP for many issues).
Another cause would be if the tampon is not inserted properly. Be sure it is completely in. Signs that it isn't in also include being able to feel it when you walk or sit. If it is in all the way, you should never feel it.
Did you pee or poop with the tampon in? This can move the tampon enough to let blood leak around it. Try changing the tampon (and wipe after placing it) each time you go to the bathroom.
Why do I need to pee so much when I'm on my period?
Many women gain water weight just before their period. (Have you heard women complaining of bloating? That's the water.) Your body's hormone changes cause this slow gain, and they also cause the release of the excess water back out of your body (called diruresis). This increases urine production. Look at it in a positive light: you have to go to the bathroom often, so it reminds you to change your pad or tampon frequently!
Can you pee or poop with a tampon in?
Short answer: Yes. But if you do, it is possible to have the tampon shift and cause leakage, especially if you have a bowel movement (poop). If it is too soon to change the tampon and you need to go, you can hold the string to the side so it doesn't get as soiled while you go. Wipe carefully so you don't pull on the string-- you can keep holding it to the side while you wipe too for "safe keeping."
My school uniform doesn't have pockets. How can I carry a pad or tampon to the bathroom?
If your uniform is a skirt, you can wear shorts with a pocket underneath. Some girls will be able to wear a tampon with a pad so that when they remove the pad mid-day, they leave the un-soiled pad on for the afternoon. If you're allowed to carry a purse, carry one every day for unexpected first period days and to get in the habit of always having it. You can also talk with your school nurse or a teacher about what other girls do.
I track my periods on a calendar, but there doesn't seem to be any pattern. Why aren't they once a month like they should be?
Once a month is more of a phrase than a reality. A typical cycle is about 21 - 35 days from start to start. Bleeding can be as little as 2 days and up to 7 days. The first 2 years after starting a period, many girls are irregular. After those 2 years, it becomes more predictable. You might be different than your friend, but your cycle should be about the same each month after the first 2 years. It does help if you track your cycles on a calendar or online app. 

My bleeding seems so heavy. I soak a pad within an hour and there are sometimes clumps in the blood. What is that?

If you are having very heavy bleeding, talk to your doctor because you can be at risk for anemia (too low of blood counts from blood loss). This can sometimes simply be your body adjusting to a period, but it can also be from a treatable condition. Your doctor can help you decide what needs to be done.
How long will the bleeding last?
The amount of bleeding and how long it lasts varies from person to person. Some days there will be barely any blood (called spotting because it looks like just a spot of blood). Other days are heavier. Bleeding can last between 2-7 days normally. Again, charting it on a calendar or app can help you figure out your pattern.
How do I keep from getting stinky?
First, be sure to regularly change your tampon or pad. If it goes without being changed, bacteria start to make a very foul odor. You should change pads or tampons at least every 6 hours (except overnight, when the pad can be left on as long as you sleep). This is important to avoid infections as well as bad smells!
You can use flushable wet wipes instead of toilet paper to help clean the area better. If you need them outside of your home you can carry some in a plastic zip lock bag and keep with your pads or tampons.
There are feminine hygiene products with deodorant available, but who wants to smell flowery? Seriously, I don't recommend these because too many girls have an allergic reaction to them and who wants to have an itchy rash in the place you can't publicly scratch?  
Another thing that's important: Wash! Once you go through puberty, your body in general smells more, so it is important to bathe regularly. Don't forget to do a daily wash of all the skin folds between your legs. You can use any soap (avoid fragrances if your skin is sensitive), but be sure to rinse well! Soap that remains between the folds can cause rashes. You can rinse the area by splashing a cup of clean water between your legs a few times. If you have a hand-held shower head available, that makes it easy to rinse the area well. You can also lift a leg so the shower water can rinse between your legs -- but hold on so you don't fall!
Do I need to wear protection between periods?
You might want to wear a panty liner when it is getting close to your next period, just in case you start, but it's not necessary.
How do I know when the next one will be?
Over time it becomes easier to predict. Keep track of the dates of bleeding as well as how heavy it is and any other symptoms. These can include pimples, cramping, mood swings, tiredness, constipation or diarrhea, back pain, sore breasts, bloating, food cravings, or headaches. All of these symptoms can help predict your cycle. There are several apps available on the computer, smart phones, or tablets, many of which are free. I suggest going to your app store and reading reviews to pick your favorite.
How much more will I grow since I started my period?
Growth speeds during the years before your period, then slows after your period. Some girls stop growing all together, but most still grow for the next 1-2 years. Ask adult family members how they grew (if they remember) because growth patterns tend to follow parents and other family members.
What is PMS?
Common effects of PMS include: bloating, cramps, fatigue, moodiness, headaches, or pimples. There are over-the-counter medications that can ease these symptoms. Ibuprofen or naproxen tend to work well. If you have severe cramping and you are expecting your period, you can start the ibuprofen or naproxen three days before your symptoms start. This decreases the pain better than starting the medicine when the cramps start. Some girls prefer wearing loose clothing or using warm compresses on their stomach. Mothers can share with their daughters their own tricks for coping.
My boobs hurt with my periods. Why is that?
Many girls notice breast tenderness during PMS (Pre Menstrual Syndrome). Your hormones are changing at this time and they can cause the breasts to swell. The swelling causes tenderness. You can help minimize this by eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep (all month long). Caffeine can worsen it, so avoid things with caffeine.
Where can I get more information?

ThePeriodBlog has a lot of great information, including how to insert a tampon, information about your body,  counting your cycle, and more.

My favorite book for girls about puberty is now a series of books. The Care and Keeping of You and The Care and Keeping of You 2 are available from many retailers. I like that they go over everything from staying clean to eating right to the importance of sleep and more.

I rarely hear questions about the hormones or technicalities of puberty, but for more on the menstrual cycle check out All About Menstruation by TeensHealth. (They also include more related topics links at the bottom.)

A good review of puberty, including how it is staged is found on Young Women's Health (Boston's Children's Hospital).

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