Work Hard, Plant Hard

plant care

Soil Aeration and Constipation

Christine KComment

Yes. I did it. I went there--even rhymed. I’ve been dying to write this analogy, and so here it is.  

First, a bit on soil. In the early days of being a plant parent (cough, over a decade ago), I used to take the potting soil right out of the bag and repot my plants with it. No amendments at all. Most of them rotted. That’s when I started doing a deeper dive in to potting soil and found out that most of it is not ideal straight out of the bag. With the exception of some cactus mixes, the majority of plants will suffocate if you plant them directly in potting soil that is not amended.

The are so many options to choose from when it comes to potting soil. This is at my local nursery Barrels and Branches.

The are so many options to choose from when it comes to potting soil. This is at my local nursery Barrels and Branches.

Here’s my go-to potting soil. It contains: Aged Fir Bark, Sphagnum Peat Moss, Aged Redwood, Volcanic Pumice, Earthworm Castings, Washed Sand, Kelp Meal, Bat Guano, Feather Meal, Gypsum and Mycorrhizae. Oyster Shell Lime and Dolomite Lime are added as pH adjusters

Here’s my go-to potting soil. It contains: Aged Fir Bark, Sphagnum Peat Moss, Aged Redwood, Volcanic Pumice, Earthworm Castings, Washed Sand, Kelp Meal, Bat Guano, Feather Meal, Gypsum and Mycorrhizae. Oyster Shell Lime and Dolomite Lime are added as pH adjusters

I use EB stone cactus mix straight out of the bag. Contains: Pumice, Fir Bark, Aged Redwood and Sand. The sand keeps it nice and dry.

I use EB stone cactus mix straight out of the bag. Contains: Pumice, Fir Bark, Aged Redwood and Sand. The sand keeps it nice and dry.

There are so many different amendments to use. I love to use pumice because it works really well and is super easy. I also use perlite, which ideally should be rinsed before added. It has tiny little particles in it that can get sucked up by the roots and interfere with their ability to get what they really need. So it’s a bit higher maintenance. But I’ve got my routine down with it. Other additives I’ve used are vermiculite, orchid bark, hydroton/leca (clay pebbles) and coco coir. There are more not mentioned here. I love to play around with mixes, kind of like a chef in the kitchen.

Playing with soil amendments is like being a chef in the kitchen.

Playing with soil amendments is like being a chef in the kitchen.

Pumice is one of my favorite soil amendments. Pictured is General Pumice Products, a local company that sells online as well (www.GeneralPumiceProducts.com/order-here/). I was gifted this pumice but started using it well before I started blogging.

Pumice is one of my favorite soil amendments. Pictured is General Pumice Products, a local company that sells online as well (www.GeneralPumiceProducts.com/order-here/). I was gifted this pumice but started using it well before I started blogging.

And then we move in to the human analogy – bowels. Bowel function is such an important part of overall health, yet of course most people don’t regularly talk to each other about it the way we talk about sleep issues, muscle/joint aches, or skin problems to name a few. In my experience as a physician, I feel there’s an epidemic of constipation in our society. It affects women more than men, and tends to occur more in younger vs older women. I have theories about why this is but regardless, I have some tips that have worked for my patients and wanted to put them out in the blogosphere. But, I don’t have any photos of poop. Because, well, poop. :)

If you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), these tips probably won’t be helpful for you. But if you find yourself backed up after 2-3 days of no bowel movement, sometimes causing abdominal pain, gas, and bloating, read on. Actually, read on anyway, since you probably have a friend with this problem and you might help them someday. The caveat here is that I encourage you to check with your doctor to investigate for things like thyroid problems or calcium abnormalities that could contribute to the constipation. But for most, those tests are normal. And then you’re left still wondering what to do, since many doctors don’t necessarily discuss the basics of bowel function with you.

We are born with a gastrocolic reflex. This reflex triggers the bowels, that are made up of (smooth) muscle to contract. The reflex typically occurs after eating – especially something with fat in it, and also with drinking a hot liquid. The reflex tends to be strongest in the morning. Often, if you have a soft reflex, you won’t “hear” it, especially if you’re rushing around trying to get out the door. It may not come back that day if you miss it. And so on goes the cycle.

The analogy to soil aeration for us is water and fiber. We need plenty of water, which helps keep things moving, and plenty of fiber to bulk the stool up. This will help prevent our bowels from stagnating and suffocating. A good balance is about 35 grams of fiber a day with around 2 liters of water intake, but everyone has their individual needs, so I encourage you to play around with it.

If you suffer from chronic constipation, I recommend you get up a bit earlier to allow time for your bowels to relax, allowing for you to listen to your gastrocolic reflex, and to act on it. Drink some tea or coffee and eat something with a bit of fat in it like almond butter (preferably without added sugar – check the labels!) or avocado. You might also consider adding some magnesium oxide (400mg) at night, which can help your bowels relax. Be patient with your bowels – if they’ve forgotten how the reflex works, it will take time for them to relearn.

Bowel function is as important as sleep, regular exercise, restorative sleep and good nutrition. Please let me know if there’s a topic you’d like to hear more about; I’m sure I can come up with a plant analogy for it J.

Watering

Plant CareChristine K1 Comment

Last year, while researching the best care for my Fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), I came across a lot of sources that said these plants prefer filtered water. As an alternative, one could let the water sit out for 24 hours to “evaporate the bad stuff.” I proceeded to usually use filtered water from my refrigerator. However, the water comes out cold (and somewhat slowly) so I would either let it sit out to warm or even sometimes microwave it. Occasionally I would use tap water that I would sit out because I’d read that would work. As someone with a science background, I probably should have questioned that to begin with.

My collection of watering cans. I use them all - the larger ones I fill with filtered water from the garden hose (read on), bring inside then fill the smaller ones. I prefer the smaller, long narrow spout for watering container plants.

My collection of watering cans. I use them all - the larger ones I fill with filtered water from the garden hose (read on), bring inside then fill the smaller ones. I prefer the smaller, long narrow spout for watering container plants.

Hard Water

What is “hard” water? Some of us have a lot of calcium and magnesium carbonates in our tap water. The water tends to be more alkaline. Calcium and magnesium are not bad for plants (or us) in and of themselves, however theoretically if you are using them all the time on your plants you could be throwing the balance of your minerals and pH off. Some plants prefer less alkaline water as well. As for drinking, I prefer to filter it since I don’t like the taste. These compounds are not gas, and therefore they don’t dissolve if you let the water sit out. In fact, they will concentrate since they are salts.

Softening your hard water (using a water softener) does not help this issue. Water softeners contain salt and this alters your plants’ abilities to use the water that’s available to them.

Treated Water

Most people living in developed countries have treated water. I don’t want to minimize how important it is to have our water treated. There are many water-borne illnesses that kill millions of people around the world every year. Many of these diseases happen in places with untreated water.

Most water is treated with cholorine. Chlorine comes in many forms, including compressed gas. This is where I believe the myth of letting water sit out came about. The chlorine in gas form will dissolve. However, most water treated with chlorine nowadays is in the form of chloramines. These are solid compounds, not gas. Not only will they not dissolve, they will concentrate if you let water sit out because some water evaporates.  Some of us also have sodium fluoride in our water. I won’t get in to the debate over that here, but the idea is that chlorine and fluoride regularly used on (especially container) plants can concentrate over time. Results can be browning/yellowing of leaves. There are other potential ill-effects such as killing some of the good microbes in the soil.

Bottom line: I’d rather not take the chance. Based on my research, my new system is to use a carbon filter. I’ve attached it to my garden hose so I can easily and quickly fill all of my watering cans and have them ready when I need them. You can find the filter I’m using on my Planty Products Recommendations page on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/shop/workhardplanthard. There are other filters available, including ones for your sink in case you don’t have an outdoor hose.

This is the filter I’m using, recommended to me at my local hydroponic store. Not all carbon filters are the same but I haven’t fully researched that issue yet!

This is the filter I’m using, recommended to me at my local hydroponic store. Not all carbon filters are the same but I haven’t fully researched that issue yet!


I hope this helps dispel the myth of “dissolving the bad stuff” by letting water sit out. Have fun planting!

Easy (slightly harder to find) Housplants

Christine K

We’ve seen top 10 houseplant lists everywhere. Pothos, Sansevieria, Dracena to name a few. These plants are easy because they can handle various lighting conditions and some neglect. I’ve been collecting houseplants for a while now so I thought I’d share a slightly different list – plants I’ve found to be super easy but harder to come by, in no particular order. Read the captions to find out my sources!

1)   Rhaphidophora tetrasperma. Also known as a “fake monstera.” Gorgeous tropical plant that grows like crazy – keep in mind you need room for it! This plant loves bright indirect light and slightly moist very well draining potting mix.

On the right is my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma. A vigorous growing, forgiving plant. Not to mention a beauty! I got my RT from @stevesleavesinc. I was lucky I happened to be online when they posted a few available and I snatched one! It’s at least doubled in size and is quickly outgrowing its taller stake. Aside from Steve’s Leaves you might check NSE Tropicals (@nsetropicals) and plant swap sites like Facebook.

On the right is my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma. A vigorous growing, forgiving plant. Not to mention a beauty! I got my RT from @stevesleavesinc. I was lucky I happened to be online when they posted a few available and I snatched one! It’s at least doubled in size and is quickly outgrowing its taller stake. Aside from Steve’s Leaves you might check NSE Tropicals (@nsetropicals) and plant swap sites like Facebook.

2)   Pothos “cebu blue.” Such a gorgeous variety of Epipremnium aureum. I grew this one from cuttings that came from across the country and within months was already propagating more.

Pothos cebu blue. I got cuttings from an IG plant friend and they are doing incredibly well in moderate light.

Pothos cebu blue. I got cuttings from an IG plant friend and they are doing incredibly well in moderate light.

3)   Monstera stiltepecana. Another one I grew from cuttings – easy to propagate and it did really well with the transfer. The leaves are captivating with their deep veins.

The right middle shelf shows my Monstera stiltepecana. It’s grown several new leaves even since this photo was taken. Even better, it was started from cuttings via an IG plant pal. I know Steve’s Leaves @stevesleavesinc gets them in periodically. Hint - turn on post notifications for Steve’s!

The right middle shelf shows my Monstera stiltepecana. It’s grown several new leaves even since this photo was taken. Even better, it was started from cuttings via an IG plant pal. I know Steve’s Leaves @stevesleavesinc gets them in periodically. Hint - turn on post notifications for Steve’s!

4)   Rhipsalis. One of my all-time favorites. There are so many varieties – they are all easy as long as you give them lots of bright light. They can handle some direct sun. Let the soil dry between watering.

To the right is a Rhipsalis species. I grab one any time I see one I don’t have! They are super easy if you give them tons of sun (indoors. Outdoors they need a bit of shade.). They rarely need water (wait until soil is completely dry). I got this one from Piep (@piep.co).

To the right is a Rhipsalis species. I grab one any time I see one I don’t have! They are super easy if you give them tons of sun (indoors. Outdoors they need a bit of shade.). They rarely need water (wait until soil is completely dry). I got this one from Piep (@piep.co).

5)   Pilea peperomioides. Happy foliage and lots of character. They even have babies that you can give your friends. Also known as the “friendship plant.” Give them bright light and try not to let the soil dry between watering. But if you do, don’t worry they’re fairly resilient! And thankfully somewhat easier to come by these days.

Pilea peperomioides “the friendship plant.” I got my first Pilea from Piep (@piep.co) and another from Armstrong’s Nursery. They’ve even been spotted at some Trader Joe’s recently. I’ve given away many babies.

Pilea peperomioides “the friendship plant.” I got my first Pilea from Piep (@piep.co) and another from Armstrong’s Nursery. They’ve even been spotted at some Trader Joe’s recently. I’ve given away many babies.

6)   Hoya obovata. I’m a huge Hoya fan. They are semi-succulents so they appreciate lots of light, can handle some direct light, and dry soil between watering. I love the splashes of white on the Obovata leaves and the growth pattern is stunning.

I keep my Obovata close to a west window. They can handle some direct light. I had it in moderate light for a plant style event. It was over-watered by well-meaning people and fungus grew on the soil fairly quickly. Best to let the soil dry out first! I got my Obovata from Walter Anderson’s Nursery in Poway. I have seen them at various sites online.

I keep my Obovata close to a west window. They can handle some direct light. I had it in moderate light for a plant style event. It was over-watered by well-meaning people and fungus grew on the soil fairly quickly. Best to let the soil dry out first! I got my Obovata from Walter Anderson’s Nursery in Poway. I have seen them at various sites online.

7)  Philodendron micans. The deep velvety leaves on this one speak for themselves. This is a trailing plant and mine is still fairly young.

A young Philodendron micans. These are trailing plants with beautiful velvety leaves. They can tolerate slightly more moderate light but will not grow as quickly. I got my micans from @landofalicestudio, an independent seller on Etsy from Florida.

A young Philodendron micans. These are trailing plants with beautiful velvety leaves. They can tolerate slightly more moderate light but will not grow as quickly. I got my micans from @landofalicestudio, an independent seller on Etsy from Florida.

8)   Hoya kerrii. Their beautiful heart-shaped leaves are captivating. Give these lots and lots of light and let soil completely dry between watering.

On the left is my Hoya kerrii “splash.” You can see the variegated version below it, and they also come in a more solid leaf type. I got my larger one at Piep in Riverside (@piep.co). I got my variegated one in a plant trade for a Hoya bella (like the one on the bottom right). The Succulent Cafe in Carlsbad is another great source for Hoya, including kerrii and bella. You can try to hunt them down online or via plant swaps as well.

On the left is my Hoya kerrii “splash.” You can see the variegated version below it, and they also come in a more solid leaf type. I got my larger one at Piep in Riverside (@piep.co). I got my variegated one in a plant trade for a Hoya bella (like the one on the bottom right). The Succulent Cafe in Carlsbad is another great source for Hoya, including kerrii and bella. You can try to hunt them down online or via plant swaps as well.

9)   Philodendron erubescens “pink princess.” Need I say more?

I got my erubescens at Rolling Greens in Los Angeles. It was a HUGE plant and I separated it and gave 3 large cuttings to plant friends. The best feeling! I’ve found this one can handle slightly less than bright light, though of course won’t grow as quickly. They grow well from cuttings if you can track some down!

I got my erubescens at Rolling Greens in Los Angeles. It was a HUGE plant and I separated it and gave 3 large cuttings to plant friends. The best feeling! I’ve found this one can handle slightly less than bright light, though of course won’t grow as quickly. They grow well from cuttings if you can track some down!

10) Sansevieria masoniana “whale fin.” These are such sculptural plants and can handle slightly lower lighting conditions. One of my all-time favorite Sansevierias! There are so many varieties of Sansevierias I encourage you to explore them if you haven’t already.

On the bottom left is one of my Sansevieria masonianas. They can tolerate lower light though be careful to rarely water if they are not getting a lot of light. I got this one at Andersons La Costa, a local nursery. If you scroll through my Instagram highlights, you can see the story of how it came to be. I separated a large plant and this one has offspring all over the country. I’ve also seen them at Walter Anderson’s and Barrels and Branches if you are local to the San Diego area.

On the bottom left is one of my Sansevieria masonianas. They can tolerate lower light though be careful to rarely water if they are not getting a lot of light. I got this one at Andersons La Costa, a local nursery. If you scroll through my Instagram highlights, you can see the story of how it came to be. I separated a large plant and this one has offspring all over the country. I’ve also seen them at Walter Anderson’s and Barrels and Branches if you are local to the San Diego area.

Bonus: Monstera adansonii. This is one of my very favorites for its gorgeous foliage and beautiful growth pattern. It tolerates slightly less than bright light. Don’t let the soil dry between watering. Very easy to propagate in water.

One of my Monstera adansonii. I absolutely love the foliage and they’ve been super easy to care for. I have given away plenty of cuttings as well. They are very easy to water propagate! I got this one from Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas. I’ve seen them online for example NSE Tropicals @nsetropicals.

One of my Monstera adansonii. I absolutely love the foliage and they’ve been super easy to care for. I have given away plenty of cuttings as well. They are very easy to water propagate! I got this one from Anderson’s La Costa Nursery in Encinitas. I’ve seen them online for example NSE Tropicals @nsetropicals.

It was very hard to select just 10 (so I added a bonus! :)), but these are some of the most forgiving, easy to grow slightly rarer plants I’ve had the pleasure of caring for. Hope you enjoyed!

Hibernation

SleepChristine K
sleep.png

Some of our plants are waking up from their winter hibernation/dormancy. I heard concerns from so many newer plant parents this winter about lack of growth on certain plants. Alocasias are notorious for this. You can stare at them all you want, but they generally won't produce much during the winter months. This is true even in many somewhat warmer environments like San Diego. They conserve energy during times when there is less fuel available (sun). Like people, their “sleep” allows them to be healthier in the long run. alocasia

Good restorative sleep is at least as important as a healthy diet, regular exercise and healthy bowels (more on that in a future post) in terms of overall wellness. Although each individual is different in terms of what might be interfering with sleep, here are a few tips that might help you improve this important component of wellness:

1. Realize that we sleep in approximately 90-minute sleep cycles. Even people who don’t “wake up” between each cycle come very close to it. So when you wake at 4am and you don’t need to be up until 6, tell yourself, “It’s okay, I still have time for one more whole sleep cycle!” This might reduce the anxiety you feel about waking up prematurely.

2. Have a good sleep schedule. Generally you should go to sleep at the same time every night and awaken around the same time every morning. Obviously there have to be exceptions to this – there’s travel, social gatherings, etc .– but try to stick to the schedule at least 5 days a week at a minimum.

3. Exercise – but not too late! Regular exercise (vigorous is better) has been shown time and time again to help with sleep patterns. However, vigorous exercise can be overly-stimulating for people who have trouble falling asleep. In that case, be sure to finish at least a couple of hours before you plan to hit the hay.

4. If you are having chronic trouble sleeping, eliminate caffeine after noon or altogether if needed. This seems obvious, but it can be hard to give up if you’re a coffee addict! You may need to taper off to avoid headaches and severe fatigue, but your body will thank you in the long run. (Side note, if you’re not having trouble sleeping, coffee is okay in moderation, and is even good for liver cleansing!).

5. No screens for 2-3 hours before bed. Period. Except…if you are like me and like to read books and articles on your device, or get your Instagram posts prepped after the kids go to bed. In that case see if you have a “night shift” setting. The newer iPhone software has this under “Settings -> Display & Brightness -> Night Shift.” Other smartphones may have similar functions. This setting adjusts the color scale away from blue light, which can be overly stimulating before bed. Exposure to blue light has been shown to lower elatonin levels, our natural sleep hormone. This may not solve your problems if you are struggling significantly – in that case please eliminate screens altogether. Go back to paper books or listen to a calming podcast instead.

6. Though alcohol can often help people fall asleep, too much often results in midnight or early morning awakenings. Best to go easy on the alcohol, especially if you have problems with sleep. Here's more information about safe alcohol amounts: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

7. The bed should be for sleep (and sex). Period. You should read in a different location of the house and go to bed when you’re sleepy. If you wake at night and can’t fall asleep, go to a different room and do something relaxing, such as mediating or reading, or spending time looking at your plants, and then return to bed when you are sleepy.

Wishing you all restful, restorative sleeps!

Humidity: Maximizing the Health of You and Your Plants

Christine K

Humidity is a hot topic in the plant world right now. In many places, it’s the dead of winter. Many of you are running your heaters 24/7. Full disclaimer – I do not have to worry very much about humidity. Although it feels very dry in San Diego compared to Hawaii (where I grew up), we are close to the ocean. This provides significant humidity that is ideal for many of my plants. The humidity does periodically drop to lower than ideal levels. And, believe it or not, the temperature does drop to the 40s sometimes at night – that’s when we run our heater. But it’s not a huge problem for me. At the same time, I am fascinated by plant science, especially when there’s interplay with human science. And I love learning and researching new topics, so I took some time and dove in to this one.

Increasing ambient humidity prevents water loss from foliage. Putting water directly on leaves does not do this. In fact, having water sit on foliage regularly can increase the chance for disease such as fungal and bacterial infections. Standing water is, in general, not good for plants. And it’s not good for humans.

misting

 

Up until recently, I used my cute little misters to periodically mist my calatheas and ferns. I would never spray the plant directly, just the air around the plant 2-3 feet away. But that only increases the humidity for a brief period of time – about 15-30 minutes maximum. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t do much. It may not hurt the plants, but theoretically it could. Thankfully I still get to use my cute misters for my tillandsias. (I like to soak them but if they are overdue for a soak and I haven’t had time, I mist to tide them over.)  At the same time, I am not interested in having another device to maintain. Thankfully I think my plants will be okay because of where I live. I also use the grouping method (placing clusters of plants together around the home) which helps increase humidity around them. However, many of you really do need to consider humidifiers during these cold months. Read on.

airplants

The same way that standing water on foliage is not good for plants, standing water sitting in trays under plants or sitting in a humidifier can breed bacteria and fungi. These microbes can be aerosolized into your home. Keep in mind, there are bacteria and fungi (microbes) everywhere. Many of them are good; diversity of microbes can help keep “bad” microbes in check at lower counts. In fact, there is research going on about houseplant microbes helping keep human pathogen levels down. (But that’s for another time.) If you have standing water sitting around, it could allow for a small number of microbes to overgrow. For this reason, I don’t recommend trays with pebbles and water unless you’re sure you will empty and refill them regularly. Standing water could create issues for people with allergies, asthma, or immune conditions and is a breeding ground for mosquitos. Theoretically you could develop sensitivity to the fungi over time that you didn’t have before, due to repeated exposure. Additionally, if you don’t monitor your humidity levels (or get a humidifier that does that for you), you could end up with such high humidity that you have precipitation in the home and on your plants. I have actually seen black mold growing on walls in rooms where people have humidifiers set very high.

Here are some great articles listed below on the topic of humidifiers that I hope you will read if you are looking to buy one. I would recommend one that turns itself off if it gets to a certain level of humidity. Alternatively, you can get a hygrometer and check levels regularly. Consider placing it at least 2-3 feet from your plants and don’t direct the jet directly on to foliage. Be careful with humidifiers that use steam around kids. And please consider cleaning it very regularly (empty and refill most days, and thoroughly clean weekly) as the first article below explains, for the health of you and your plants!

Importance of cleaning your humidifier regularly:

https://www.consumerreports.org/humidifiers/why-you-should-clean-your-humidifier/

Humidifier buying guide:

https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/humidifiers/buying-guide

Good brief resource on misting:

https://extension.illinois.edu/houseplants/needs_humidity.cfm

Research on bacterial growth in humidifiers:

http://abc7chicago.com/health/consumer-reports-bacteria-breeding-humidifiers/1174563/

Fungus, Mealybugs, and Colored Snot.

InfectionsChristine K
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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.

IMG_1558

Mealybugs:

Fungus:

IMG_3608

IMG_1479

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):

  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/dont-judge-your-mucus-by-its-color-201602089129

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.