In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold and flu season. And it’s a bad one. And once again, patients (not to mention friends and family) are telling me on a daily basis, “my mucus is colored,” usually stating or implying that they may need antibiotics. I would love to dispel that myth and also offer some strategies for your plant boogers, too. Let’s start with plants. If you have enough plants, and especially succulents, you’ve probably dealt with mealybugs and/or fungal infections in your plants. They can infect any plant, indoors or out. They don’t just look gross, they can also interfere with your plant’s ability to photosynthesize, among other things. It’s important to keep an eye out and start treatment immediately when you notice any signs. Prevention involves just trying to keep your plants healthy. Provide them the right light, water, and ambient air circulation to thrive. Separate infected plants from the healthy ones. Even then they will not be immune. Rather than repeating all of the other great articles out there on getting rid of fungus and mealybugs, I’ve provided some links below to good quick reads. In my experience, I’ve had mild mealybug infestations that respond well to a small amount of natural dish soap mixed in water and sprayed on the plant weekly for about 4 weeks. This gets them through their whole life cycle. I would be wary of starting with alcohol for a mild infection unless used sparingly (gently dabbing over affected areas) – consider starting with the most gentle method and escalate as needed. You can try adding baking soda to the dish soap/water mixture to kill mild fungus. If it’s severe you may have to get rid of all of the affected foliage and hope that whatever is leftover will recover.
Similarly, if you are ill with a severe pneumonia, you may need very strong antibiotics to treat you or even save you. Although some pneumonia is viral, we would never want to miss a bacterial infection in the lung so we treat most pneumonia with antibiotics to be on the safe side. But if you are ill with a cough, sinus congestion, or runny nose lasting less than 2 weeks, you probably don’t need antibiotics at all. Would you throw bleach on your plants if they had a few mealybugs on them? I sure hope not. The majority of upper respiratory symptoms are caused by viruses. This includes bronchitis. (Yes, bronchitis!) So many of my patients are shocked by that. It also includes infections that turn your mucus green or yellow. I remember when I was younger, I was told that colored mucus meant I needed antibiotics. This is completely false. The color of our mucus does not tell us whether we have a viral or a bacterial infection, or whether we have an infection at all. If you want to read more about your mucus and why it can be colored, here’s a nice article from a Harvard Medical School professor (if the link doesn't work you may copy and paste in to your browser window):
Viruses do not respond to antibiotics. In fact, more and more research is showing that the overuse of antibiotics for viral infections is increasing bacterial resistance across the globe, meaning they will be less effective over time among populations. This is true on an individual level as well – the more antibiotics you take in your lifetime, the more likely it is you will develop resistant organisms that are very difficult to treat if you do someday develop a serious bacterial infection. Additionally, antibiotics kill both bad and good bacteria. We depend on good bacteria (part of our “biome”) to help our immune system stay balanced. Having good bacteria flourish in your gastrointestinal tract has been directly linked to a stronger immune system. So repeatedly disrupting it could make you more susceptible to illness moving forward.
Viruses are bad. They kill people. I often have patients say, “So you’re saying I just have a virus” when I counsel them that they don’t need antibiotics. Run of the mill cold viruses (rhinoviruses) may be “just a virus,” but there are many other viruses that cause much more severe illness. Influenza causes a high fever, dry cough, headache and body aches. Prevention, early supportive treatment, and sometimes oseltamivir (Tamiflu, an antiviral medication specific for Influenza) can be life saving. There are many other viruses that can cause more severe illness than a simple cold. Adenovirus can cause pink eye, ear infections, sinus infections and bronchitis that can last weeks. For these we really don’t have “antiviral” medications that are commonly used and accessible. So why do doctors still give antibiotics when they are seemingly not indicated? Two reasons – 1) It takes much longer to explain all of this than to prescribe an antibiotic and 2) they don’t want patients expecting a prescription to be disappointed.
So how do you know when you might have a bacterial respiratory infection? First, always seek medical attention if you are having any trouble breathing, as this could be pneumonia (a “lower” respiratory tract infection) or constriction of the airways such as asthma. Secondly, if you are having recurrent high fevers (over 101F), respiratory symptoms that aren’t improving over a two week period (such as sinus congestion or cough), ear pain (not just “fullness”), a bad sore throat with fever but WITHOUT significant cough (strep generally doesn’t cause a cough), or if you have a weakened immune system for any reason, you should be seen by a provider who can help determine whether antibiotics are indicated.
Finally, the most important thing really is prevention. Washing your hands well and frequently has to be the very most important thing we can all do to prevent spread of infections. If you haven’t just washed your hands, don’t touch your face. Think of all the times you rub your eyes, nose and mouth during the average day. Now think of all of the places those hands have been. Instead, use the back of your wrist. If you do get sick with a cough, cough in to your elbow, not your hand (or especially the air!). Avoid close contact with others as best as you can and drink lots of fluids. Your plants can keep you company. All of their fresh filtered air is just what the doctor ordered.