If you have children (assuming you’ve taken them to the doctor), you’ve been there. I’ve been there. Your child has been coughing for days; he hasn’t slept in 3 nights (which means that you haven’t slept in 3 nights); he has a fever; he has morphed into a living snot factory; and he has a God-awful rash that you think might be leprosy. Or smallpox. Or poison ivy.
So you call the pediatrician and beg for an appointment. After much protest, the receptionist tells you that the on-call doctor “can squeeze him in.” Like he’s an inconvenience. Thanks.
You finally manage to get your little man out the door while juggling your keys, your phone, a box of tissues, and his iPad. When you arrive, you are ushered immediately into that germ-ridden purgatory we call the “Sick Child Waiting Room.” You threaten to kill your child if he touches anything (quietly, because let’s be real–nobody needs a DSS report). Because no matter how sick your kid is, the ones that were there before him might have been sicker. The nurse eventually releases you and escorts you to the exam room, where you get to wait another 20 minutes.
And then the doctor comes in. He listens patiently to your story for all of 12 seconds, does a quick physical exam from as far away as his arms will allow, and scribbles something on your check-out sheet. “It’s just a virus. He’ll be fine.” And off you go, grateful and enlightened–wondering what exactly “just a virus” is supposed to mean, and quite confident that your child is far from “fine.”
So what, exactly, is “just a virus?” Well, a virus is a certain type of microorganism (or germ). Viruses have certain properties that distinguish them from bacteria and other less common infections, but unless you own a microscope, a lab coat, and a Petri dish, you probably don’t really care. I’ll let you read about that somewhere else, if you choose to.
Calling something “just a virus” is really misleading, because there are some pretty wicked viruses out there. HIV, Polio, and Ebola are all viruses. The herpes virus (yes, that one) can cause brain hemorrhages, seizures, and death in infants. Viruses can lead to cancer, liver failure, and heart failure.
Fortunately, most of them don’t. In fact, most of them don’t cause any symptoms at all. Most of the viruses that do produce symptoms will cause some nasal congestion or a sore throat. Really, the vast majority of viral infections are more inconvenient than harmful. But calling something “just a virus” is a bit like saying saying something is “just an animal.” It could be a cuddly puppy or a pissed-off wolverine; you really need to know more about it before you choose an approach.
Of course, when your pediatrician diagnoses your child with “just a virus,” he’s implying that it’s one of those that doesn’t typically cause much harm. There are thousands of viruses out there that can cause cold symptoms, and we don’t tend to test for them. It would be ridiculously expensive, it wouldn’t change what we do, and you probably wouldn’t get the result until the symptoms had gone away.
He’s also implying that it’s a problem he can’t do much about. In contrast to bacterial infections, which are typically treated with antibiotics, most viral infections are successfully stomped out by your immune system in a few days. There are a handful of viruses that we can immunize against, often with very good effectiveness. There also are a few that we can treat directly, but these tend to be the bad ones–not the ones that cause colds. For the rest of them, you just have to wait it out.
It’s never really the wrong decision to take your child to the pediatrician. There’s always a chance that there could be something else going on. (Click here to see why NOT to go to the emergency room.) But for most viral illnesses, your child would probably do just as well at home. If you do take your child to the doctor for a virus of the “just a” variety, she may be diagnosed with a “viral syndrome,” “upper respiratory infection,” or “acute viral rhinitis.” These are all super-secret doctor terms for “a cold.” (I might get shunned for telling you.) You see, when you go to the trouble of bringing your child in, we don’t want to seem like we are downplaying your concerns. So we use big words instead.
After making this diagnosis, the doctor will probably “provide reassurance” and recommend “symptomatic care.” This means fluids, rest, humidifiers…things you were probably doing already. I promise, it’s not that we don’t understand how miserable “just a” viruses can be. Trust me, we’ve all picked up more than our share from your snotty little kids (or our own). It’s also not that we don’t care. It’s just that we have nothing else to offer. But don’t worry. It’s just a virus. He’ll be fine.