Wednesday, 11 July 2018

I'm On Your Side - How to stop the URTI-antibiotic discussion becoming an ordeal

The antibiotic debate is a big one for several good reasons.  One of those reasons is that times have changed and change can be challenging.  Antibiotics were used liberally by previous generations of clinicians.  We and our patients now find ourselves in a world where antibiotics are being used less often.  This culture change is a major contributor to the conflict that arises due to expectation of antibiotics as a treatment for sore throats and painful ears in young children.

The good news is that if you are prescribing fewer antibiotics then you are part of a growing trend.  In the UK and many other countries, antibiotics prescribing rates have fallen over the past few years.  This means a lot more children are benefiting from symptomatic treatment without the added side effects of antibiotics.  So far the evidence is that this reduction has not been the cause of a rise in bacterial complications such as peritonsillar abscess and rheumatic fever.(1)

If you work in a country with a low incidence of complications of streptococcal infections, that tells you more about the pathogenicity of your local bacteria than about your prescribing rates.  We therefore greatly rely on our Public Health team to facilitate the safety of the no-antibiotic approach to managing URTI/AOM/tonsillitis.  The Public Health team monitors the rates of complications of streptococcal infection and alerts you when there is a more pathological strain of strep and will make recommendations regarding temporary changes in prescribing practices.

It's great to know that Public Health have our backs, but it's a little complicated to explain to patients and parents in the time restrictions of a consultation.  Explaining the rationale for avoiding antibiotics for sore throats and ears can be tricky.  While many of of us are finding that it is problematic less often than it used to be, it is still one of the most important skills that we should have.  The question is, what can we do to make it likely that this discussion goes well and goes quickly?

The first thing to do is make sure that we're coming at this from the point of view of the best interests of the child.  I understand the need for antibiotic guardianship but quite frankly when it comes to each clinical encounter, I'm always going to choose what will be best for my patient.  If this is what is driving our avoidance of antibiotics then the parents will hopefully sense that we want what they want -their child to be as well as possible as soon as possible.  What this child centred approach achieves is that we then have the right attitude towards the subject of antibiotics.  We don't come across as having a hidden agenda.  It's all about the child and wee hope that parents will respond well to that.

When we have the discussion it is important to be considered when choosing our words.  If we talk about "not needing" antibiotics, it might come across as them not having fulfilled the criteria for what they see as the ultimate treatment.  Instead, talk in terms of antibiotics not helping.

It is fairly standard at this point to mention the side effects of antibiotics.  I don't tend to mention allergic reactions, partly because they are not that common and partly because we are trying to get away from parents thinking that everything that happens while taking antibiotics is an allergic reaction.  What I do emphasise is that common side effects are abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.  I make sure that the parents know that the main reason for wanting to avoid antibiotics is that I don't want to do that to the child and I don't want to make life harder for the parents.

Because most people don't seek a medical opinion about what not to do, this is the ideal time to discuss what does work.  Analgesia is key and parents will sometimes need encouragement in this regard.  One thing that causes much confusion is the issue of what the medicine is for.  There has been an unhealthy emphasis on controlling temperature which sometimes means that paracetamol (acetominophen) and ibuprofen are not used as analgesia when the child is afebrile but refusing to drink.

This is all important information and yet at the same time it is way too much information for a parent.  In many ways, the complexity of the information is part of what perpetuates the overuse of antibiotics.  It is far simpler for the parents and the clinician to simply say, "Your child needs antibiotics."  Unfortunately this is the illusion of simplicity.

So what we need are strategies to simplify the complicated. A leaflet is a very good way to achieve this.  We know what the questions that most people tend to ask, so why not give them some answers?  Here is a simple leaflet, in a question and answer format:
You could even start the process in the waiting room.  A poster that gives a bit of context might soften the ground for the discussion to be allowed to focus on more important things.
If you would like access to either the leaflet or the poster then please let me know and I can give you a fully editable copy.  You will need to register a free account at  When you have done that, either send me a direct message via social media or post a comment at the end of this blog.  (You don't need to worry about anyone seeing the comment.  I get to review all comments before they are published and if you start your comment with "not for publishing" I will keep it for my eyes only.)  Give me your email address that you used to register the account and I will share the templates of the leaflets or poster if that is of use to you.  You can then use these to edit and personalise.  

There are lots of leaflets, posters and websites available.  You should use them both to inform and to simplify.  My view is that they should be basic but contain the important information.

Finally, make sure that the parents know that they need to be looking out for signs of secondary infection and sepsis.  Complications of URTI are thankfully low where I practice but we should all be thinking of URTI as pre-sepsis.  I think that this safety-netting discussion can actually be used to support  the no-antibiotic element of the consultation.  Parents need to know that the clinician realises that their child is genuinely ill.  For that reason, we should avoid the phrase "just a virus".  It may be meant as reassurance but is often perceived as dismissive.  By completing the consultation with and explanation of signs of complicated URTI and when to re-attend we are helping the parent to see that we have taken the child's illness seriously.

Edward Snelson
Very Serious Doctor

Disclaimer:  The online content of this blog may have been corrupted by pixies and as such the responsibility for anything that turns out to be wrong sits with the Fairy King.

  1. Sharland M, et al, Antibiotic prescribing in general practice and hospital admissions for peritonsillar abscess, mastoiditis, and rheumatic fever in children: time trend analysis, BMJ 2005;331:328

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Decision Fatigue and What to Do About It - When to Use Antibiotics for URTI, AOM and Tonsillitis in Children

Recently I was speaking to a GP colleague about the ways to protect oneself from decision fatigue.  Decision fatigue is a serious issue for anyone in a high volume, high turnover medical job.  He had some great insights into the problem and the solutions.

What are the effects of decision fatigue?  In the short term, your decision making ability gradually declines.  In the long term there is a risk of burnout.  From your patient’s point of view, your fatigue could mean that because you have already made too many decisions, you will not make the right decision when it really matters.  It is possible that this could lead to harm to a  patient.  Decision fatigue affects our ability to show compassion or provide patient centred care.  Subconsciously we protect ourselves from too many decisions by caring less and being more directive.

My GP friend’s solution to all of this was elegantly simple: make fewer decisions.  His rationale was this: there is only so much that we can give and we need to choose when to use our decision making energy.  If decision making is a finite resource then to use it indiscriminately is could even be seen as irresponsible.

So, how do you choose what to stop deciding?  Well, I would start with a commonly occurring dilemma that creates a great deal of uncertainty.  How about antibiotics for sore throats and ears in children?

You will notice I don’t talk about tonsillitis, URTI or otitis media.  These terms all imply an aetiology.  That is a presumption that is completely misleading.  Tonsillitis may be viral and red throat without exudate may be streptococcal.  The truth is that we don’t have a reliable way of discriminating between viral and bacterial aetiology when we examine throats and ears.  So we can't know who to give antibiotics to.  Rather than exhausting ourselves trying to get it right, perhaps we should just stop, but is that safe and justifiable? I am not the first person to ask that question. (1)

The decision that we are all faced with, to antibiotic or not-antibiotic, has to have a valid goal.  So the next question has to be, “What is the benefit in giving antibiotics?”

Do we give antibiotics to prevent complications?  In the UK this is not the case.  The evidence is very much against a need to give antibiotics as a way of preventing complications of URTI.  Antibiotic prescribing rates are falling and yet there is no crisis caused by increased numbers of invasive infection or the sequelae of streptococcal infection.(2)  Logically, if there was a quantifiable risk of complications related to reduced antibiotic prescribing, we would all have to justify each decision not to prescribe.  As previously mentioned, there is no reliable discriminator, so shouldn’t we be hearing from the public health authorities that we need to be more proactive in our antibiotic prescribing.  That’s not the message we are getting at all.  Why?  Because prescribing antibiotics for sore throats and sore ears in children (in a country with a low prevalence of complications such as rheumatic fever) is not part of a strategy for prevention of secondary infection, invasive infection, sepsis or any other complication.(3)

Should we be giving antibiotics to control symptoms?  Let’s look at that as a reason to prescribe antibiotics.  What are the facts?
  • The odds of antibiotics helping the symptoms of any one child are low.  The actual number varies by age, study and whether we are talking about ear or throat symptoms but they are all in the same region.  The odds of benefit are in the region of 10-20%.  
  • Decision tools such as Centor and FeverPain are designed to improve the odds that antibiotics will help symptoms but there are  major problems with these aids.  Firstly, they are not validated in the younger children who account most of the presentations of sore ears and sore throats.  Secondly, these tools imply a binary outcome.  If you score above a certain number, antibiotics will help right?  Wrong.  A high score means slightly less awful odds that antibiotics will help.  Again, that is only validated if your patient is an older child. (4,5)
  • Rapid antigen testing has been validated as a way of reducing antibiotic prescribing but has not been shown to have a high sensitivity from the point of view of directing treatment to where it is effective.  These two things are very different. (6)
  • There is a significant harm done by antibiotics in children.  Depending on the antibiotic and the study, the odds of making a child unwell (vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea) with an antibiotic is 5-10%.  
So where have we heard 10% before.  Wasn’t it something to do with odds of benefit?  What would a statistician say if they looked at the odds of benefit and the odds of harm and saw that they overlapped.  In all truthfulness I couldn’t stay awake for the full answer but the gist was that there’s not a lot of point in such a treatment being used as a way to manage symptoms.
Finally, here are two things that make a nonsense of the whole question.
  1. Children often refuse the antibiotics we give them.  Phenoxymethyl penicillin in particular is disgusting and children tend to be quite discerning in their medicine preferences.  Often the outcome of a difficult decision over whether to give antibiotics is later made meaningless as the child decides for all involved that the antibiotics are not going to happen.  The parent, remembering that it was a choice rather than a must-do usually gives up the fight.
  2. The issue of antibiotics for tonsillitis and otitis media fails an important test: Snelson's Safeguarding Test.  It goes like this:  A parent brings a 2 year old to you with a fever and a cough.  You see exudate on the tonsils and are about to prescribe penicillin.  The parent says that they prefer not to treat their child with antibiotics.  You have confidently ruled out sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia.  What are you going to do? Get a court order to force the parent to give the antibiotics?  Refer the child to social services?  I don't think so.
So if the parents and the child are allowed to refuse antibiotics for sore throats and ears, how important can they be?  We wouldn't allow these barriers to get in the way if the child's life was at risk or even if the child was going to suffer as a result of non-treatment.  This way of looking at it is a good way of identifying the children who should be having antibiotics:
  • Children with severe symptoms despite maximal analgesia
  • Children with complications of URTI (such as infected lymph nodes)
  • Scarlet fever (typical rash and oral inflammation alongside pharyngitis/tonsillitis and febrile illness) implies a more pathological strain of steptococcal infection
  • Children with prolonged symptoms e.g. no signs of improvement after five days of illness
So next time you see a child with URTI, ask yourself, could I insist that this child should have antibiotics?  If not, save yourself a decision.  You know it makes sense.  All we have to do is convince the parents that this is the right thing to do.  (more on that very soon)

Edward Snelson
Disclaimer: I was replaced by a robot three years ago.

  1. Morton P. Should we treat strep throat with antibiotics? Canadian Family Physician. 2007;53(8):1299.
  2. Kvaerner KJ, Bentdal Y, Karevold G., Acute mastoiditis in Norway: no evidence for an increase, Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2007 Oct;71(10):1579-83. Epub 2007 Aug 20.
  3. NICE, Sore Throat (acute): Antimicrobial Prescribing, NG84, January 2018
  4. Little Paul, Hobbs F D Richard, Moore Michael, Mant David, Williamson Ian, McNulty Cliodna et al. Clinical score and rapid antigen detection test to guide antibiotic use for sore throats: randomised controlled trial of PRISM (primary care streptococcal management) BMJ 2013; 347 :f5806
  5. Roggen I, van Berlaer G, Gordts F, et al Centor criteria in children in a paediatric emergency department: for what it is worth BMJ Open 2013;3:e002712. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002712
  6. Little Paul, Hobbs F D Richard, Moore Michael, Mant David, Williamson Ian, McNulty Cliodna et al. Clinical score and rapid antigen detection test to guide antibiotic use for sore throats: randomised controlled trial of PRISM (primary care streptococcal management) BMJ 2013; 347 :f5806

Monday, 11 June 2018

Paediatrics is Not a Specialty - top tips for working with young people

Paediatrics is difficult to define as a specialty.  At one point the RCPCH talked about “doctors who look at specific health issues, diseases and disorders related to stages of growth and development.”  Now the RCPCH careers site has a very different note stating, "Whether a paediatrician, GP, children's nurse or pharmacist, our job is to help babies, children and young people thrive." I'm guessing that the RCPCH realised that it wasn't just doctors and it certainly wasn't just paediatricians who fitted the original description.

In fact paediatrics may not be a specialty at all.  It could be defined as the art of treating children differently from adults by knowing what diseases affect them, how they respond to illness and how to use that knowledge to help them during their illness or prevent them from becoming ill.

Anyone who works with children in a healthcare setting should study of the art of paediatrics.  We all need to develop our skills in assessing and treating ill children as well as becoming experts in all the other aspects of child health including safeguarding, growth and development.  Children and young people are different in so many ways and it takes a bit of effort to get good at working with them but it is completely worth it.

What is different about children and young people that requires a different approach and different skills?

Children respond differently to illness - Physiological changes can be dramatic in uncomplicated viral illness making the recognition of complicated infection difficult
Children may not localise, report or recognise symptoms - This is why constipation and UTI are often only diagnosed when they have been prolonged.
Children often present with something normal - This often happens because an adult is concerned and doesn't know that the symptom is normal.  One example is knock knees in children.
The overall likelihood of significant pathology is low - Much of paediatrics is about diagnosing normality or at least that the illness is uncomplicated and does not require medical intervention.  The other side of this coin is that the routine nature of a good outcome can lead to complacency and impairs our awareness of complications and significant pathology.
Children are vulnerable - As well as the safeguarding element of caring for children and young people, we have to consider how difficult it is for them to feel safe in a healthcare setting.  It is confusing and intimidating and it is too easy to forget to keep the child at the centre of the process.
There is a lot of uncertainty that goes with the assessment of children - paediatrics is often compared to veterinary medicine because we end up relying more on what we see.  It is fairly usual to find that we can't get specific symptoms and that our ability to examine is limited by the child's interaction.

Last week, I went onto TwitFace and asked the people who were online what their top tips are for working with children an young people.  What follows is based on some of the great responses I recieved.

Starting with the general advice:

There were also loads of tips for examining children:
I haven't been able to include everything and in some cases there were recurring themes which I have categorised together.  There were quite a few specific things that people have found to be useful in paediatric examination, some of which are listed here:
  • The guess what's in the tummy game.  I have a high success rate with guessing sausages.  However you go about it I would highly recommend this approach to abdominal examination.  It's probably quite scary for a child to have a stranger press their tummy, but if it's a game that seems to be a different matter.
  • For assessing gait, get the child to walk towards their parent rather than away from them.
  • For ENT examination:  Tell the child: "I have a magic fairy/dragon detector (ear thermometer) that goes beep when a fairy is in the room. If it beeps I have to check their ears and throat with my magic torch to make sure it isn’t hiding in there."  I have to try that one.
  • For respiratory exam, ask them to blow out the candles on an imaginary birthday cake.
One place even had a departmental rabbit.  I can imagine that would work to settle many an otherwise inconsolable child!

Paediatrics may not be a specialty but it is an art.  How you approach that art is up to you but whichever you go about it the end result should be the same:  The child will get the best care possible and you might be having some fun at the same time.

Edward Snelson
Possibly not a Paediatrician

Disclaimer - All the views expressed here are solely those of the author.  Any references to Royal Colleges are entirely fictional and should not be used as a reason to revoke the author's invitation to the annual RCPCH cheese night.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to all the people who shared their tips and tricks via social media or face to face.  More importantly, thank you to all the children who put up with us while we figure out how to do the whole paediatric examination thing.  Your patience and tolerance is appreciated.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Right Sort of Confidence - (Easter Egg: Acute abdominal pain in children)

I feel pretty confident that my car has the right amount of oil in the engine and air in the tires.  Why?  because that has been the case every time I check these things.  So why bother checking?

Paediatrics is a dangerous speciality because the usual outcome of any child presenting for assessment is that everything is fine.  Fever?  It's probably an uncomplicated viral infection.  Rash?  Virus.  Lump in the neck?  Virus.  You get the idea.

As a result, any one of us can become so used to the benign outcome that we don't expect the dangerous problems or the unusual causes of childhood symptoms.  This is called availability bias.  The last 50 children with this presenting complaint had a virus and got better, so this patient is likely to be the same.

Of course the statement about the likelihood is true, however people don't bring their children to us just for a probability estimate.  We are there to assess whether there is a significant problem that requires intervention.  To get there, we need to know what to look for.

Abdominal pain in children is a good example.  Children often get abdominal pains.  One of the most common presentations is abdominal pain during a febrile illness.  Most likely cause?  Virus.  I suspect that the significant pathology that is most often considered in this situation is appendicitis.  Appendicitis is relatively rare in younger children but paradoxically more difficult to diagnose, so while the chances of a 3 year old having appendicitis is very low, so are the chances that a 3 year old with appendicitis will get this diagnosed easily.

Appendicitis is at least on our minds and so we're probably not going to miss it through failure to look.  There are plenty of causes of abdominal pain that are easily missed for various reasons.  Lower lobe pneumonia, for example, is easily missed because it isn't in the abdomen.  Testicular torsion is easily missed if it isn't looked for.  You'd think that if a child or young person had a problem with their genitalia they might mention that.  They often don't.  If you don't look for torsion, you won't find it.

Here's a brief overview of some of the easily missed causes of abdominal pain in children:
Here is a more extensive list of possible causes of abdominal pain in children.

Going through these, starting at one o'clock:

Mesenteric Adenitis - Yes, children with viral upper respiratory tract infection can get acute abdominal pains and can even have localised abdominal tenderness.  Children with more significant causes of pain can also have URTI, so if there are red flag signs or symptoms you should still take these seriously.
Non-IgE food allergy - This can cause acute abdominal pain but paradoxically is a diagnosis best not made acutely.  History, a food diary and follow-up are the way forward when food allergy becomes a possibility.
Gastroenteritis - When vomiting precedes abdominal pain then this makes gastroenteritis more likely.  Similarly, diarrhoea is a strong indicator of viral enteritis.  However, there is no such thing as always, so careful abdominal examination is key and signs that suggest a surgical cause should still lead to referral.
Gynaecological - The main thing to say about this is that it is a common pitfall to forget to even consider this possibility in children.  How often do you think ectopic pregnancy is considered in the differential of a 13 year old with acute abdominal pain?  It should always be remembered as a possiblity.  Do a pregnancy test.
Constipation - This is possibly the most common cause of afebrile acute abdominal pain in children.  There are two main pitfalls.  The first is to miss the diagnosis because the child or parent doesn't think the child is constipated.  The second is to think that because the presentation is acute, the problem just needs a brief period of treatment.  If they are constipated enough to present with acute pain, the problem is chronic and should be treated as such as per NICE guidelines.
Urinary Tract Infection - Abdominal pain +/- vomiting without diarrhoea is a common way for children to present with UTI.  There is no absolute rule on when and when not to test a urine but it is fair to say that significant diarrhoea usually precludes it for a couple of reasons.  In all other cases of acute abdominal pain, it is usually a good idea even if interpreting the result is not completely straightforward.
Colic - Truly a diagnosis of exclusion, but this can be a good history and examination. What to do with colic is covered here.
Appendicitis - Uncommon but not so rare that you won't see a case every now and then. Picking them out from the crowd can be difficult.  Good simple analgesia and reassessment after an hour is often a helpful discriminator for the grey cases if you can do that.
Testicular torsion - Inguinal and genital examination is part of the examination of a male presenting with abdominal pain.  Do it, even if the last 100 times were normal.
Intussusception - Rare but deadly.  Episodes of pallor and signs of being significantly unwell are reasons to suspect intussusception.  Bloody and mucousy (recurrent jelly-like) stools make it easier to diagnose but may be a late sign.
Diabetic Ketoacidosis - It is very easy to see how first presentations are initially diagnosed as viral illnesses.  If you've got a child who's a bit more lethargic or subdued than your typical gastroenteritis case, or if there is a report of polyuria, test a glucose.

In most cases, significant causes will be excluded by a thorough history and examination.  Often a urine test is a good idea and sometimes a second opinion will be necessary.  Abdominal X-ray is almost never useful in making a decision about referral.

Paradoxically,  the wrong sort of confidence comes from repeated experience of nothing bad happening.  The right sort of confidence comes from knowing that bad things will happen and knowing that we're ready for that eventuality.  This often happens once you've experienced the sharp end of an unexpected diagnosis.  If that has happened, congratulations!  You're now an expert.

Edward Snelson
Experienced if not Expert

Disclaimer - Experience doesn't always lead to expertise but it's a fairly important element. Bad experience is a good wad to develop great expertise but only if you have all the right elements in place to ensure that you learn without becoming a second victim.  I would like to see more work in that area, especially at the Primary/ Secondary Care interface.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Quick and Easy FOAMed - Fallacies and Facts About Foreskin Problems in Children

In case you hadn't noticed, there is now a guideline for everything.  It is impossible to keep up. FOAMed can be really useful in that respect because it should keep a finger on the pulse for you and give you a condensed version of the important things, allowing you to be selective about when you go into something in more detail.  The way it works is that I read the guideline, just in case you don't get the chance.  (insert cheeky winking emoji here)

Nor can you rely on guidelines, alerts and journals to cover everything, despite the sheer quantity of them.  The nature of FOAMed is that it often covers the things that haven't earned a guideline, are not deemed worthy of an alert and have too little academic value to have a published article.  Some things that are over-represented in practice are under-represented in paper.  By way of example, I give you foreskins in children.  I think that the lack of publications on the subject is surprising considering the number of children attending primary and secondary care with this problem, and considering how much is often misunderstood about foreskins in pre-pubertal children.

At some point in my medical training I remember being taught that uncircumcised penises should easily retract by about 3-4 years old and that they should be kept clean.  Balanitis was seen as evidence of poor hygiene and so we were told that more cleaning was the solution.  Foreskins that were ‘non-retractile’ were considered abnormal and if there was recurrent balanitis or ballooning, the child should be considered for circumcision.  We now believe that all of this is untrue.  It is quite normal for the foreskin to remain adhered to the glans until they hit puberty, whenever that may be.  Ballooning is within normal limits and balanitis is often due to unnecessary attempts to retract or clean under a foreskin.  Recurrent balanitis is usually an indication to leave the foreskin alone, rather than to cut it off.

So I know that I was taught something that later turned out to be untrue and I know that many clinicians in both primary and secondary care haven’t heard the good news.  Why?  Presumably because it isn't seen to be worth a guideline, alert or journal article.  There is stuff out there, but not a lot.  This was the best article that I found. (1)

But the lack of literature is not a problem in the brave new world of FOAMed.  FOAMed comes in many different shapes and sizes.  Often it takes the form of a written piece, but some have embraced the infographics approach.  Most notably there is the excellent library of infographics that has come out of the Derby Emergency Department. (2)  I was inspired by Ian Lewins making infographics sound like a good thing so I'm having a go with it.  Here's the result:

An infographic is, by nature, pithy and lacks detail but hopefully it gets the job done.  I've gone for substance over style. I know that if I had given the job to a medical student, they probably would have been much better with the visual effects.  They would also have made sure there were more pictures.  Somehow, this didn't seem like the best subject with which to take that step.

Edward Snelson
President of the Sir Lancelot Spratt Association
Disclaimer:  Anyone can do this stuff.  If you want to have a go at making infographics and want to find out more about rickrolling, click this link.

  1. Drake T, Foreskin problems in boys, Trends in Urology and Men's Health, March/April 2014

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Time for Child Advocacy - 10 things to keep kids safe

Don't you love it when someone brands something that you've always been doing?  Advocacy is nothing new, but by making a big deal of it, we are all prompted to think about how we can do more of it and do it better.  Every consultation involving a child or young person will tend to include a bit of advocacy.  I am doing it every time I tell a parent that when their febrile child is refusing to drink, that usually means that they are in pain.  Parents sometimes think that paracetamol and Ibuprofen are just for reducing fever.  Part of my job is to put analgesia on the agenda.  It is the perfect time to do it because this is when the parents want their child to feel as well as possible.

Similarly, the impact of safety advice is greatest following an injury.  So when a child or young person comes to me with a mishap, I try to work a bit of prevention in alongside the cure.

Injury is the leading cause of death in children over the age of one in the UK. (1)  So, while we worry about sepsis and meningitis, preventing injury may be the real battleground.  Injury is inherently preventable, as demonstrated by the massive difference between rates in different countries.  It is not just lethal injury that is important.  In fact, to the children themselves it is the debilitating injuries that really matter.  Missing a sporting event or the ability to swim just before a holiday is the end of the world.  Or at least it is when 'the future' is essentially the next month or so.

What I do is to try to throw in something relevant to the presentation.  Whether injury or ingestion, there are lots of ways that we can make the environments of children and young people safer.  Here are a few that are worth spreading the word about to parents and colleagues:

1. Warn parents of babies and toddlers about common choking hazards

Have you ever wondered why pen lids have a hole in the top?  Before that little innovation, these were common choking hazards.  Anything that fits neatly into the windpipe runs the risk of a fatal choking episode.  The list of dangerous things includes many food and playthings that parents readily give to their children.

I think that any household mishap is a good opportunity to warn parents about choking hazards.  Prevention can include avoidance.  Supervision is also great but only if you know what to do, and with choking, prevention really is better than cure.

2. Make sure that children can't get hold of button batteries

If you were not aware of this, button batteries are incredibly dangerous to children.  There is a misunderstanding about these miniature killers.  It is not the contents leaking that are dangerous, it is the electrical current which forms corrosive chemicals outside of the battery.  Button batteries have become more powerful, in order to meet the demands of today's toys and gadgets.  When swallowed, the current may burn a hole in the gut (usually the oesophagus) and bleeding can be fatal.  A swallowed button battery needs to be located as an emergency in case it is stuck, as these carry the highest risk.

I find that many parents don't know about this, so I often mention it when a child has swallowed something concerning but less harmful, like a diamond ring.

3. Make sure that liquid gel detergent capsules are kept away from children

Ask any ophthalmologist what common household item is most dangerous to children's eyes and I am willing to bet that they say liquid gel detergent capsules.  Why?  They are the perfect thing to cause massive damage.  Firstly, they look very appealing to a child.  They are brightly coloured and a bit like something that might be good to eat.  If bitten into, the contents come out under pressure, so the eye has no time to protect itself from the contents.  The contents themselves are a highly concentrated alkali which will burn and dissolve the thin layers of the eyeball.  While the industry has made some moves to warn people to keep these away from children, such messages can be interpreted as a standard bit of advice, which does no justice to the fact that these capsules are far more dangerous than the standard bottles or boxes of detergents.

So when a child has had a mishap with another item, I like to warn parents about other things that they may not have thought about.

4. Recommend that all children with a bike wear a bike helmet.

Heads injuries are the most common cause of fatal injury in children.  Bikes are great fun and a good way for children to keep fit.  Unfortunately, injury is all about physics.  I have yet to see a child run into something and have a significant head injury.  Bicycles however, allow a young person to gain enough momentum to do real damage even if another vehicle is not involved.  While it can be difficult to persuade young people to wear helmets, they are the must have accessory for anyone who likes their brain or their face.  Road rash on the face is not a good look and helmets do a decent job of protecting the face from being badly grazed in a fall from a bike.

I emphasise the facial injury as much as the head injury prevention as it often means more to the young person involved.

5. Advise a bit of trampoline safety

Trampolines are a favourite for all ages.  They are also one of the biggest sources of injuries that come into children's emergency departments.  While I am not suggesting that trampolines should be avoided, the risk of broken bones can be minimised.  One of the common factors in many of the worst trampolining injuries that I have seen is that there has been another person involved.  The worst injuries tend to occur when a small child is on the trampoline with an older child.  I would recommend that younger children in particular should never have someone larger than them on the trampoline.  Ideally, they should be on the trampoline alone, with onlookers cheering them on.

6. Make sure that parents lock up medicines

Medication packaging always has on it 'keep out of reach of children.'  What this fails to take into account is the incredible resourcefulness of children who may seem to small to get up to cupboards or high shelves.  I can tell you from experience that nowhere is safe.  The only completely safe place for a medicine is in a locked cupboard or box.  Nor can you rely on 'child proof' containers to prevent accidental poisoning.  Child proof containers seem to be adult proof (It can't be just me that struggles with the tops) while children who have time on their hands always seem to get them open in the end.

7. Know about the surprise household poison - plug in air fresheners

Many plug in air fresheners contain essential oils.  These chemicals are potentially incredibly poisonous due to their ability to dissolve into brain tissue.  Parents are frequently surprised by this fact so it is well worth letting people know about this dangerous household item.  People are also surprised by the ability of toddlers to drink the contents of these plug ins if they get hold of them.  I don't know how they do it.  And why won't they eat their vegetables???

8. Warn parents to beware of the sun

When the sun comes out and children quite rightly make the most of it, we often end up seeing children with quite severe sunburn.  Babies are especially at risk due to their thin skin and lack of protection from the sun.  Make sure that people know that children can get deep burns from the sun and that prevention is key.  Children are also vulnerable to the dangers of overheating so hydration and sun avoidance are important when the sun is out.

9.  Remind adolescents to respect water

It is great that young people use the opportunity of time off school to go and have a bit of an adventure.  One way that this sometimes goes very wrong is when water is involved.  Getting into trouble in water is all too easy.  The simplest way to avoid the danger is to make sure that all swimming is done in appropriate areas.  Tempting though it is to jump into a reservoir or an abandoned quarry full of water, this is very high risk.

10.  A surprise danger – twilight

Now for the sciency bit…  Twilight is a very dangerous time for pedestrians and young people are already very much at risk due to their lack of perceived mortality.  Why is it dangerous when the sun rises and sets?  The answer is probably due to a little known chemical (found in the eye) called rhodopsin.  This is the chemical that enables the eye to adjust to lower levels of light.  The trouble is that it takes many minutes to produce the chemical and only seconds for a flash of light to get rid of it completely.  As a result, drivers can have their ability to see reduced very suddenly by a moment of setting or rising sun, allowing a person in the shadows to become almost invisible. (3)

It is important to teach young people road safety, but also to let them know that at certain times of day, drivers may not see them at all.
We're already making every consultation matter.  Giving parents a little suggestion every now and then about how to make their child's environment a bit safer is just another way of adding to the difference we already make.  Paediatrics is so rarely about preventative medicine but when a child has a mishap, we have a golden opportunity to discuss ways to avoid the next accident.

Edward Snelson
Chronic Avoider

FOAMed is free.  The clue is in the name.  That said, if anyone would like to celebrate their enjoyment of the free open access education provided by GPpaedsTips by helping children to receive the best possible care, I have set up a donation page where I am raising money for a new Sheffield Children's Hospital Emergency Department.  For more information about this or to donate, click on the link in the Just Giving logo:
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  1. RCPCH, "Why children die: death in infants, children and young people in the UK"
  2. AAP, "Prevention of Choking Among Children", February 2010

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

ECG in children - an amuse bouche (and what to do with one)

Food etiquette is a minefield.  I remember the first time I was presented with an amuse bouche.  I had no idea why it was, let alone what I was supposed to do with it.  One minute later, with the tasty morsel in my belly, I realised I had really over-thought the whole thing.  Also, I was still hungry.  Non-acute paediatric ECG is a lot like that.

Some tests are so simple, usually because they are quantitative.  You do a blood sugar and you get... a blood sugar.  Some tests are much more qualitative, such as Chest X-ray.  Show a chest X-ray to half a dozen radiologists and you may be surprised by the range of interpretations.  ECG in children definitely falls into the second category in that it is a test which requires interpretation.  The interpretation of an ECG is fairly standard, but I've never yet met a standard child or a standard clinician.

There are many reasons why an ECG might be done for a child.  I am not talking about during an acute presentation such as a severe tachycardia or other signs suspicious of a cardiac cause for a child to be unwell.  I am talking about ECG in a child who is well, but had a symptom that warranted an ECG.  If you want to know about the kind of critical care ECG interpretation best done wearing a cape and with underpants on the outside of your trousers, you might like to listen to the PEMplaybook.
If your cape is in the cupboard and underwear is wherever you normally keep it, then ECG is a more fickle friend.  When an ECG is normal normal then that's great but it's not the end of the story.  Often it appears abnormal, because paediatric ECGs look different much of the time.  In a BMJ article about ECGs, the authors write, "Chest pain in children is rarely cardiac in origin and is often associated with tenderness in the chest wall. Electrocardiography is not usually helpful in making a diagnosis, although a normal trace can be very reassuring to the family." (1) That is all very well if with a 12 lead ECG you can tell them that all is normal.

So what is the problem with paediatric ECG?  Well actually there are two problems.  The first is the issue of things that look abnormal and are not.
Much of the differences in paediatric ECG are to do with the initial right sided dominance.  The other thing that can be a factor is physics.  The ECG may show up as LVH, RVH, atrial enlargement etc, but this is often because there is just very little in the way of chest wall between the sticker and the myocardium.  You don't get this problem in children with a more substantial chest wall.  Simply put, in a small or skinny child, large waves are usually normal. If something appears big, look at the child and check the axis.  A skinny child and a normal axis means that the "LVH by voltage criteria" is probably a lie.

Knowing these things helps us to be able to say more often, "This is a normal ECG."

Then there is the opposite problem: a 12 lead ECG done when asymptomatic does not rule out significant pathology.  Take this case study as an example:

A 12 year old girl presents having had a collapse while playing tennis.  She had no palpitations or chest pain and simply recalls feeling faint just before she collapsed.  The adult playing tennis with her describes a sudden collapse, while she was walking t pick up a ball.  When they ran over, the young person was unresponsive for only a few seconds before slowly coming around.

Clinical examination is normal.  The only other history of note is in the family history - a sudden unexpected death in infancy of a 9 month old sibling.  

Would you be happy to rule out a cardiac arrhythmia based on a resting, asymptomatic 12 lead ECG?  With that history, I wouldn't recommend it.

So, if an ECG in a child who is currently asymptomatic has a lot of false positives and false negatives, what is it useful for?  The answer to that is that it should mainly be used to answer specific questions.  For example, in the case above, I want to know the corrected QT interval.  A 12 lead ECG will tell me that.  In fact, resting asymptomatic ECGs are mostly useful for checking rhythm and intervals.

Morphology and high voltage account for most of the false positives and normal rhythm can be a false negative.  Both these things are fine, because a 12 lead ECG is simply an amuse bouche.  If you aren't hungry (no red flags), an amuse bouche is simply a tasty mouthful which won't fill you up.  It is debatable whether it is even needed in a child who has had a typical faint with no red flags.

If you are hungry (red flags in the history or examination), don't rely on an amuse bouche, which should just be there to keep you happy until the real food arrives.  What you have for your main course depends on where you work.  Perhaps you have direct access to 24 hr ECG and cardiac echo. Me? I phone a friend to do these things for me.

Edward Snelson
The Gourmand of Child Health

Disclaimer - I may not have had all of the ECGs the right way up.  That could explain some of the abnormal morphology.

  1. Steve Goodacre, Karen McLeod, Paediatric electrocardiography, BMJ 2002;324:1382
  2. PEM playbook EKG killers