Cold and Flu Sense

Clearing Up Colds and Flu

by Dr. Jeffrey Tipton
 

Cold and flu season are here and many people, and sometimes even doctor people, confuse the two. There is also much confusion about how two treat colds and the flu. I will now attempt to clear the matter up – pun intended. 

Cold and flu present with certain symptoms. The symptoms are often the body’s attempt to get rid of the virus and to minimize damage. Sneezing ejects the virus from the nose, cough from the lungs and throat, vomiting from the stomach, and diarrhea from the intestines. And fever makes it difficult for the virus to reproduce. The topic of viral illnesses will always remain somewhat confusing, since the body has a relatively small number of symptoms with which to respond to an ever-changing, wide variety of viruses. While colds and flus may overlap, the differences between them are important.

The three most frequent symptoms of a cold are nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and runny nose. Throat irritation is often involved (but not with a red throat). Adults and older children with colds generally have minimal or no fever. Infants and toddlers often run a fever in the 100 to 102 degree range. Depending on which virus is the culprit, the virus might also produce a headache, cough, postnasal drip, burning eyes, muscle aches, or a decreased appetite, but in a cold, the most prominent symptoms are in the nose.

When someone has a cold, the nasal secretions are teeming with cold viruses. Coughing, drooling, and talking are all unlikely ways to pass a cold. But sneezing, nose-blowing, and nose-wiping are the means by which the virus spreads. You can catch a cold by inhaling the virus if you are sitting close to a sneeze, or by touching your nose, eyes, or mouth after you have touched something contaminated by infected nasal secretions.

Once you have “caught” a cold, the symptoms begin in 1 to 5 days. Usually irritation in the nose or a scratchy feeling in the throat is the first sign, followed within hours by sneezing and a watery nasal discharge.

Within one to three days, the nasal secretions usually become thicker and perhaps yellow or green — this is a normal part of the common cold and not a reason for antibiotics. The entire cold is usually over all by itself in about 7 days, with perhaps a few lingering symptoms (cough) for another week.

While there is much debate about the best way to treat the symptoms of a cold, the following seem to work and are relatively safe:

Pain medicines (Tylenol, Advil) for pain and/or fever

Moist heat (shower) for congestion

Increased fluid intake (including chicken soup)

Popsicles and/or hard candy for dry throat

Several studies have shown that Vitamin C may help reduce one’s chance of getting a cold and can slightly shorten the duration of a cold.

The flu can be a much more serious illness. The most deadly recent worldwide outbreak was the flu epidemic at the beginning of this century and killed more than 20 million people. Even today, more than 36,000 people in the United States die from the flu each year — primarily those who are weak from advanced age or a major illness.

Classically, the flu begins abruptly, with a fever in the 102 to 106 degree range (with adults on the lower end of the spectrum), a flushed face, body aches, and marked lack of energy. Some people have other systemic symptoms such as dizziness or vomiting. The fever usually lasts for a day or two, but can last five days.

Somewhere between day 2 and day 4 of the illness, the “whole body” symptoms begin to subside, and respiratory symptoms begin to increase. The virus can settle anywhere in the respiratory tract, producing symptoms of a cold, sore throat, ear infection, and/or pneumonia.

The most prominent of the respiratory symptoms is usually a dry, hacking cough. Most people also develop a sore (red) throat and a headache. Nasal discharge and sneezing are not uncommon. These symptoms (except the cough) usually disappear within 4 to 7 days. Sometimes there is a second wave of fever at this time. The cough and tiredness usually lasts for weeks after the rest of the illness is over.

Inhaling droplets from coughs or sneezes is the most common way to catch the flu. Symptoms appear 1 to 7 days later (usually 2-3 days). The flu is airborne and quite contagious, and with its short incubation period it often slams into a community all at once, creating a noticeable cluster of school and work absences.

The other major difference between the common cold and the flu is that the flu is preventable. There are still many clinics given flu shots and they can still be useful even if you are late getting one.

But if you are feeling ill and you’re not sure if you have a cold or the flu, then it’s never a bad idea to give your doctor and him or her “clear things up.” 

 Contact me at 213.952.9723 if you need more info.

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