Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Being Sick

I am one of those people who eat predominantly healthy foods and gets regular exercise. I also have the benefit of youth I suppose, but then again, I'm surrounded daily by 45,000 other college students who are all little carriers of doom and missed classes. I don't get sick very often, but for the last couple of days I've been sick.

This won't turn into a recitation of symptoms [or an "organ recital" as my grandmother refers to it]. Rather, I would like to comment briefly on our medical system these days. We're constantly bombarded by commercials and advertisements for various medicines, prescription or otherwise. People can google their symptoms and "diagnose" themselves, then find the "perfect" drug for whatever ails them, all without a doctor. On the one hand, it's incredibly empowering and has probably saved lives. On the other hand, we think we can be our own doctors. I'll admit, when I woke up this morning with a painfully sore throat, the first thing I did was whip out my laptop and google "strep throat symptoms" and "tonsillitis." Then I made an appointment with the university health clinic, called my mom, and took my dad up on an offer for homemade chicken noodle soup.

I drank green tea with honey until my appointment, then dutifully recited my symptoms to the nurse and was poked and prodded by various instruments by the doctor. He took swabs to test for strep and the flu, said I was a little congested, and prescribed me pseudoephedrine, a decongestant. I was honestly a little surprised to be getting a prescription at all, because I am hardly having trouble breathing due to excessive snot migration or anything of the sort, nor is it interfering with my social life. [Is that too graphic? Apologies.] In fact, I think this is the least congested I have ever been while sick— the common cold is much worse.

I think that the prescription was symptomatic more of the expectations of patients rather than my symptoms. People go to the doctor and expect to get medicine to make them better. I understand that, partly, but I also have read about superbugs and drug-resistant strains of common afflictions. An MSNBC article from 2004 reports, "Flesh-eating bacteria cases, fatal pneumonia and life-threatening heart infections suddenly are popping up around the country, striking healthy people and stunning their doctors. The cause? Staph, a bacteria better known for causing skin boils easily treated with standard antibiotic pills. No more, say infectious disease experts, who increasingly are seeing these “super bugs” — strains of Staphylococcus aureus unfazed by the entire penicillin family and other first-line drugs."

That's scary. Among other things, such as shared close quarters, the article cites "overuse of antibiotics, which tends to kill weak bacteria and help hardier ones develop resistance."

If you want to read a great and comprehensive NYT article on this subject, check out Drug-Resistant Staph: what you need to know

So anyway, while the doctor didn't prescribe me an antibiotic, he prescribed me medicine that I didn't need [or want— I didn't fill the prescription— I have Kleenex]. At some grocery stores now, such as the locally-based chain Meijer, there are programs in place to give people free antibiotics. While it's a great thing to provide much-needed medicine to everyone, I fear that it devalues the purpose of antibiotics.

Meijer offers seven antibiotics for free with a doctor's prescription, and states it places "a special focus on the prescriptions most often filled for children." Furthermore, in the "What the Experts Say" section, it says "National health experts say that 40 percent of children who see a physician leave with a prescription." If you perused the NYT link already, you would have seen the following: "Without question, people need to show far more respect for antibiotics. Misuse of antibiotics allows bacteria to evolve and develop resistance to drugs. But parents often pressure pediatricians to prescribe antibiotics even when they don’t help the vast majority of childhood infections." So now you see where I'm going with this.

We're overmedicated, and not in the Tom-Cruise-thinks-psychology-is-a-hoax kind of way. We think we need medicine for everything, including [slightly] runny noses. I'm certainly not against medicine, and I take ibuprofen from time to time as needed, but I am concerned with what we are doing to ourselves, our bodies, and the microorganisms that make us sick [and keep us healthy— not all bacteria is bad!]. Unless new, more powerful drugs can be found to combat these superbugs, we have a problem for which we have only ourselves to blame.

I will end with a pun that I thought of while responding to my roomate's plea for me to stop coughing.

"That made me laugh, which made me cough. It's a vicious cycle. ... but I suppose it could also be a viscous cycle since I am coughing up some phlegm."



Scott said...

I tend to agree. My father in law has an expression, "A running horse heals." I think the largest part of shaking a mild sickness (like a cold) is staying active and eating properly. Sometimes, the medicine just makes you feel worse in other ways.

Scott said...

PS - hope you feel better.