More Precise Tests Make Diagnoses Sound Scarier

The days of the common cold diagnosis seem to be over. You may be given a multiplex test if you are sick and head to an ER or urgent care. These tests can identify 18 to 20 types of viruses and bacteria. That means you may leave the doctor’s office knowing exactly what germ is making you sick.

Multiplex tests have become far more common in recent years. Last flu season, they were very helpful when the country was simultaneously dealing with the flu, RSV and COVID. The tests helped doctors make quick diagnoses and get people treatment fast.

During flu season, multiplex testing is an excellent way to help stem the spread of multiple deadly respiratory illnesses. They can also help track public health data, letting doctors know what illnesses are in their community.

However, there are drawbacks. We all know how to handle a cold: plenty of fluid, rest and stay warm. But how do you treat adenovirus or bocavirus? The answer is exactly the same way because — in essence — they’re just colds. While we are usually fans of getting as much information as possible, these tests give a ton of information that often comes without guidance.

ERs and Urgent Care facilities like the tests because they are fast, and doctors don’t get to spend much time with patients. The problem is that they often don’t discuss the results as much as a primary care physician might. Most viruses don’t have a specific treatment. So, unless it’s the flu, RSV or COVID, you probably have something that is pretty much a cold, or at least treated that way.

The tests are also identifying that people have multiple viruses at once. That’s not uncommon and doesn’t usually make you sicker, but hearing that you have several infections is distressing. In years past, when people had colds, they probably had multiple infections at once, but before the rise of these tests, they didn’t know. They went to the doctor, tested negative for flu and went home to nurse a cold. But these new tests make people think they are sicker than they are. No matter what the test labels it, they still have a cold.    

We have the ability now to put names on things, so I think it has changed,” said Dr. Preeti Milani, an infectious disease specialist at the Univ. of Michigan. “I do feel that Covid has changed that paradigm a bit.”

She isn’t against using tests. But she urges caution in overreacting. The tests can give important information. “I do feel that a Covid diagnosis is an important one, because we handle it differently. We have treatments, and those treatments are underused by people who can benefit from them,” she said.

Tests are an important way for doctors to get a lot of information to treat their patients. But when we hear the results, they can sound scary. These new tests have made it so that we’re not being told we have colds anymore. But most of us have colds, regardless of their scientific names.

Banner image: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

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