One of my colleagues at Revolution Health has a daughter who is a freshman in college (we’ll call her Julie). Julie has been struggling with a very sore throat for many months, and her mom would occasionally ask my opinion about her care.
Julie initially believed that she had a viral throat infection and tried to wait it out. Several weeks later the pain was quite severe and worsening instead of improving, so she sought help at the student health service at her university. The nurse reassured her and told her to wait a little bit longer and come back in a couple of weeks if things weren’t improving.
Two weeks later Julie was back, and was offered a monospot test (which was negative). The nurse practitioner gave her some samples of Keflex to treat her presumed strep throat, and was told to return in 2 weeks if her symptoms hadn’t resolved. Julie’s mom asked me if I thought that was ok, and I mentioned that drug resistance was not uncommon to Keflex, but that it was really cheap. I explained that Julie’s throat had been sore for an awfully long time, and that if the Keflex didn’t improve her symptoms within a few days, she might want to try something stronger.
Guess what? A week later Julie went back to the student health service with continued symptoms, and their response was to continue the Keflex for a full 10 days. Julie asked if a different antibiotic might be appropriate, and they simply replied that the health service only carried Keflex.
Julie completed the full course of antibiotics with no improvement. She called her mom to ask what she might do next and I suggested that she consider seeing a physician about an antibiotic with a lower resistance profile (like azithromycin). She was unable to get an appointment for a couple of weeks. The student health service nurse said that Julie’s throat did not appear concerning.
As it happened, Julie began having difficulty swallowing, was unable to sleep because of her throat pain, and had a low grade fever. I worried about a peritonsillar abscess (pus trapped in the deep tissues of the throat) and counseled Julie’s mom to get her to a physician right away. Julie flew to DC to be with her mom for the weekend, and was able to get an appointment with a primary care physician who gave her some azithromycin and steroids and said that there did not appear to be any visible signs of a peritonsillar abscess.
Again, Julie’s pain continued unabated. Her throat became even more swollen – and at that point I encouraged them to go to the ER to rule out an abscess. Julie was seen by an affable young ER physician who promptly ordered a CT scan of her neck. Several hours later the diagnosis was confirmed: Julie had pus trapped in the deep recesses of her throat. The ER doc numbed up the tonsil area and inserted a needle into the pus and pulled out several cc’s of thick green goo.
Man I wish I could have been there. (I know that’s a weird response, but docs LOVE pus.)
As I thought about this case, I wondered if we’ve gone too far in withholding antibiotics from deserving patients in our quest to reduce resistant bacterial strains. For every Julie there’s probably 100 others receiving (quite inappropriately) azithromycin for a viral throat infection… but Julie’s case may represent a new kind of provider problem: their own resistance to antibiotics.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.