Managing Respiratory Symptoms in the 'Tripledemic' Era

Charles P. Vega, MD


January 30, 2023

It's a common scenario. A patient, Agnes, with symptoms of an upper respiratory infection (URI), but what's the cause? Is it COVID-19, flu, or even RSV? I recently described just such a patient, an obese woman with type 2 diabetes, presenting with fever, cough, myalgia, and fatigue. I asked readers whether they agreed with my management of this patient.

Thank you for your comments as we continue to react to high rates of URIs. Your comments highlight the importance of local resources and practice habits when managing patients with URI.

It was clear that readers value testing to distinguish between infections. However, access to testing is highly variable around the world and is likely to be routinely used only in high-income countries. The Kaiser Family Foundation performed a cost analysis of testing for SARS-CoV-2 in 2020 and found, not surprisingly, wide variability in the cost of testing. Medicare covers tests at rates of $36-$143 per test; a study of list prices for SARS-CoV-2 tests at 93 hospitals found a median cost of $148 per test. And this does not include collection or facility fees. Twenty percent of tests cost more than $300.

These costs are prohibitive for many health systems. However, more devices have been introduced since that analysis, and competition and evolving technology should drive down prices. Generally, multiplex polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for multiple pathogens is less expensive than ordering two or three separate molecular tests and is more convenient for patients and practices alike.

Other reader comments focused on the challenges of getting accurate data on viral epidemiology, and there is certainly a time lag between infection trends and public health reports. This is exacerbated by underreporting of symptoms and more testing at home using antigen tests.

But please do not give up on epidemiology! If a test such as PCR is 90% sensitive for identifying infection, the yield in terms of the number of individuals infected with a particular virus should be high, and that is true when infection is in broad circulation. If 20% of a population of 1000 has an infection and the test sensitivity is 90%, the yield of testing is 180 true cases vs 20 false-positives.

However, if just 2% of the population of 1000 has the infection in this same scenario, then only 18 true cases are identified. The effect on public health is certainly less, and a lower prevalence rate means that confounding variables, such as how long an individual might shed viral particles and the method of sample collection, have an outsized effect on results. This reduces the validity of diagnostic tests.

Even trends on a national level can provide some insight regarding whom to test. Traditionally, our practice has been to not routinely test patients for influenza or RSV from late spring through early fall unless there was a compelling reason, such as recent travel to an area where these infections were more prevalent. The loss of temporality for these infections since 2020 has altered this approach and made us pay more attention to reports from public health organizations.

I also appreciate the discussion of how to treat Agnes's symptoms as she waits to improve, and anyone who suffers with or treats a viral URI knows that there are few interventions effective for such symptoms as cough and congestion. A systematic review of 29 randomized controlled trials of over-the-counter medications for cough yielded mixed and largely negative results.

Antihistamines alone do not seem to work, and guaifenesin was successful in only one of three trials. Combinations of different drug classes appeared to be slightly more effective.

My personal favorite for the management of acute cough is something that kids generally love: honey. In a review of 14 studies, nine of which were limited to pediatric patients, honey was associated with significant reductions in cough frequency, cough severity, and total symptom score. However, there was a moderate risk of bias in the included research, and evidence of honey's benefit in placebo-controlled trials was limited. Honey used in this research came in a variety of forms, so the best dosage is uncertain.

Clearly, advancements are needed. Better symptom management in viral URI will almost certainly improve productivity across the population and will probably reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics as well. I have said for years that the scientists who can solve the Gordian knot of pediatric mucus deserve three Nobel prizes. I look forward to that golden day.

But for now, thank you for your comments, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue in the coming months!

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