We are in the Middle of a Triple Threat Pandemic. How Do We Know What is Making Us Sick?
After over two years of careful pandemic living, we are back to our old habits. For some reason, few of the lessons we learned about preventing the spread of upper respiratory viruses stayed with us. Mask-wearing has gone by the wayside, viewed more as punishment than protection. When we get sick, we rarely stay home and rest. Remember hand washing? Neither does anyone else. After the extremes of wiping down groceries, we now rub our noses with microbe-laden fingers without giving it a second thought. No wonder we are getting sick all the time.
In the U.S. this fall we are in the midst of a “Triple Pandemic” of flu, respiratory syncytial Virus (RSV), and Covid. Gone are the good old days of worrying about only one virus. People are now getting sick with multiple viruses at the same time. Some are even getting viral infections in tandem, the end of one morphing into the beginning of the next. To complicate matters further, viral infections are also leading to bacterial infections, so treatment is getting more complicated. With all of these bugs flying around, how do we know which one is making us sick at any given time?
As an ear, nose, and throat doctor, I’m no stranger to upper respiratory infections. I’ve been navigating the fuzzy space of diagnosis for nearly twenty years. When I was in residency, I was taught that viral infections eventually go away on their own, so only symptomatic treatment is necessary. Bacterial infections, on the other hand, were supposed to be treated with long courses of antibiotics. But with the addition of SARS-CoV2, things are more complicated. It’s getting harder and harder to tell what is causing what and what kind of treatments to use.
Logic suggests that testing mucus would provide the best answer. If only it were that simple.
We are lucky to have rapid tests for viruses that produce results within minutes. We are all familiar with rapid antigen SARS-CoV2 tests for Covid, but there are also rapid tests for RSV and the flu.
What people don’t know is that these tests aren’t perfect. The rapid antigen RSV test, called the QuickView, only detects the virus around 80% of the time. It…