Respiratory Problems: The Third Most Common Reason People Call the Nurse Advice Line

This is the next installment of our blog series, “The Top Five Reasons People Call the Nurse Advice Line.” Read our introductory blog post, the article on the fifth most common reason why people call in, fevers and chills, or the fourth reason people call our Nurse Advice Line, urinary problems.

Our analysis of the most common reasons people called the Health Dialog Nurse Advice Line between April 2021 and March 2022 found respiratory problems to be the third most common reason to seek medical advice. There are a range of respiratory problems, from a common cold to chronic conditions, like asthma. But even with the common cold, people often don’t know if they need to seek medical care or wonder if a prescription could help alleviate their symptoms.

Most often, respiratory problems are viral infections that affect the upper respiratory system (nose, mouth, sinuses and throat), such as colds, influenza and croup in children. Symptoms come on quickly and usually last for a couple of days. The cold and flu can really run you down and people often want a medication to provide a quick fix; however, antibiotics cannot be used to treat viral infections. Use of these medications when they’re not needed adds the risk of unnecessary allergic reactions, side effects, and development of a resistance to future, needed antibiotic treatments.

However, not properly treating a viral infection can lead to development of a less common bacterial infection. Bacterial infections include sinus infections in the upper respiratory system or pneumonia in the lower respiratory system (bronchial tubes and lungs). Antibiotics should be used to treat bacterial infections.

People with chronic lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be more susceptible to bacterial infections. These chronic conditions cause inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes that carry air to the lungs. It is important to take regular medication to keep the condition under control and have rescue medications to help with exacerbations. Allergies are another condition that can cause respiratory problems that can be treated with antihistamines.

Help from the Nurse Advice Line is Nothing to Sneeze At

Viral respiratory infections are more common than bacterial infections. Their symptoms are similar, but viral infections respond well to home treatment and self-care, while bacterial infections require antibiotics to resolve. Although our coaches cannot diagnose the type of infection, using our clinical algorithms our registered nurse Health Coaches can help a caller to understand their symptoms and provide the safest level of care based on this assessment. Health Coaches can suggest home treatments when appropriate, and provide information on recognizing signs and symptoms of a worsening condition and recommend steps to take if symptoms progress.

Helping a Member with Asthma Breathe Easier

A 26-year-old member called the Health Dialog Nurse Advice Line because she was experiencing a flair up with her asthma and neither her maintenance nor her emergency medication were providing relief. She reported that she was having moderate difficulty breathing and her normal treatment for such exacerbations was not working, with her breathing slowly getting worse. She also explained that she had an appointment scheduled with her provider in two weeks. The member wanted to know if she could wait two weeks to see her doctor at the pre-scheduled appointment or if she needed to seek more immediate care. After reviewing her symptoms, the Health Coach recommended the member call her doctor within the next hour, as not addressing the issue could lead to an acute exacerbation and the member would have to go to the emergency department.

On a follow-up call, the member stated that she was given prednisone to use in conjunction with her maintenance and rescue inhalers to open up her airways. The Health Coach reviewed the potential side effects of the prednisone, what other symptoms to monitor for and when to follow up with her provider. With the advice from her Health Coach, the member was able to get the help she needed to breathe easier.

Respiratory problems are a common occurrence, with most adults and children getting infections each year. However, despite being common, people don’t always know what to do. Some people think if they’re sick they need to go to a doctor and get a prescription, while others may think it’s just a cold that will go away on its own and it turns into a more serious bacterial infection. A 24/7 nurse line can provide your members with the professional advice they need to properly treat their symptoms, improving the member’s whole health while reducing unnecessary healthcare costs.


The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained within this article are for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Topics: Trends & Insights, Nurse Advice Line

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