Conquering Colds and Flu: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms and Treatments of these Respiratory Conditions

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1 Conquering Colds and Flu: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms and Treatments of these Respiratory Conditions

2 When it comes to the work force, approximately 75 million days are lost due to employees having the flu, and more than 100 million days see reduced productivity across America. It can be difficult to know whether you have the flu or a cold, because in many cases the symptoms are very similar. Becoming ill between September and May, which is the influenza/flu season, makes it even harder to figure out. While initial symptoms for colds and flu look alike, the flu carries a much higher risk for complications, which in some cases can be life-threatening. The only true way to know whether you have influenza or a common cold is to have a medical test that is specifically designed to identify the flu. This can be done through your primary care physician. Finding out early in the course of your illness allows time for effective medications and treatment. Impact More than 200,000 US residents are admitted to hospitals with the flu each year and approximately 36,000 of them die from flu-related complications. An estimated 5-20 percent of residents get the flu but aren t hospitalized. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports that each year 22 million days of school are lost due to students having colds. In contrast, the Center for Disease Control reports that approximately 38 million school days are lost each year due to students having the flu. Take-Away: When it comes to the work force, approximately 75 million days are lost due to employees having the flu, and more than 100 million days see reduced productivity across America. How You Get Colds and Flu Both illnesses are transmitted through direct contact. When an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks, infected germs are released into the air. If any of them land in your nose or mouth, you become infected. Another way to catch a cold or the flu is to touch something an infected person recently touched and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes before disinfecting your hands. An important reason to get a flu shot is because of the way colds and flu are transmitted. You have no control over other people s actions. For example, the change the cashier just gave you at the store could have been handed to her 10 minutes beforehand by a person with the flu. Take-Away: Germs for colds and flu can remain active and alive for several hours in the open. 2 Conquering Colds and Flu

3 You can t tell the difference yourself, so don t assume every cold is influenza. You need a medical test to form a solid diagnosis. Diagnosis The flu is diagnosed through a nasal swap. Your health care provider will use a long slender stick with a cotton swab on the end to go deep into your nose to collect the specimen. The sample is then examined under a microscope to determine whether you have the actual flu or just a common cold. Take-Away: You can t tell the difference yourself, so don t assume every cold is influenza. You need a medical test to form a solid diagnosis. Possible Complications Both a cold and the flu carry risk for complications. Your cold can go into bronchitis or rarely pneumonia. In some cases, you may develop a sinus infection, however, a cold is a mild illness that doesn t typically leave you too weak to fight off a developing problem. And in most cases, if you are in good general health, a cold runs its course in seven to 10 days and is done. Potential complications include: Bacterial pneumonia Dehydration Sinus Infections Ear Infections If you have other health issues, such as heart, kidney or lung disorders, the flu can exacerbate those as well. Take-Away: The flu can be severe both in symptoms and duration. It can bring down even those who are in good general health. Symptoms Colds A cold comes on gradually and may take time to develop. You will typically start with a sore or scratchy throat that gets better in a couple of days. The next step will be a runny nose and congestion, which will last for several days before moving into the cough on day four or five. In some cases, you may have a fever, however, that is more typical during a child s cold. Some colds cause mild body aches and mild fatigue. 3 Conquering Colds and Flu

4 You can catch both colds and flu at any time of the year, under any circumstances, particularly if you are exposed to someone carrying a virus. Dark or yellow mucus does not indicate a more serious infection has developed. It is a common cold symptom, however, if it is still dark a week to 10 days following the first symptoms, you may want to see your primary care physician to be sure it has not changed to a bacterial infection. Flu A big difference between a cold and the flu is that flu symptoms come on suddenly, sometimes within a few hours. In addition, they are more severe than cold symptoms, a moderate sore throat, accompanied by headache, cough and congestion. In addition, body and muscle aches that can be severe announce that the flu has arrived. Many people also feel extremely fatigued. In some cases, especially with H1N1 the so-called Swine flu you may also get diarrhea and vomiting. Take-Away: The symptoms differ between the two and an exceptionally-bad cold isn t necessarily flu. Conversely, mild flu isn t usually just a cold, either. Contagious Duration You can spread your cold to others during the first three or four days that you have symptoms. The illness lasts 7 10 days and resolves; however, a lingering cough for a couple of weeks is not uncommon. If you have the flu, you are contagious for up to seven days after your first symptoms appear. The worst should be over in two to five days, but unlike the quick recovery from a cold, you may feel tired and run down for up to two weeks. Take-Away: If you suspect you have either a cold or the flu, stay home until you can see a doctor. Don t go spreading the germs around to others. Causes The Mayo Clinic reports that there are more than 100 viruses responsible for the common cold. The most common virus is the rhinovirus. It is untrue that simply being in cold or wet weather will cause you to become infected with a cold, but it is true that the cold viruses thrive in low humidity. Due to North Carolina s relatively humid summer months, you are 4 Conquering Colds and Flu

5 You can really only treat the symptoms, not the illness, which has to run its course and move on. more likely to get a cold during fall and winter months, however, you can catch colds all year round. The flu is usually caused by either the Influenza A or Influenza B virus. Take-Away: You can catch both colds and flu at any time of the year, under any circumstances, particularly if you are exposed to someone carrying a virus. Treatment Years ago, physicians wrote prescriptions for antibiotics without knowing whether a bacterial infection was even involved. Antibiotics do not have any impact on a viral illness. Research later determined this contributed to the current issue of antibiotic resistant infections. It is important to choose a primary care physician who supports evidence-based practice when it comes to your medical care. This means determining whether you have a cold or the flu, treating it accordingly and only using antibiotics if a secondary bacterial infection is found. Colds and flu are virus-based, therefore treating the symptoms while the illness runs its course is the best practice. Overthe-counter medications have proven helpful in reducing symptoms whether you have a cold or the flu. Antihistamines, anti-inflammatory medications and decongestants are routinely recommended by family medicine practitioners. Take-Away: You can really only treat the symptoms, not the illness, which has to run its course and move on. Diligent care while you have symptoms is necessary to prevent secondary infections, though, so don t take any chances. Antiviral Medications Antiviral medications, if administered within the first two days of illness, have been shown to reduce the severity as well as the duration of flu symptoms. This underscores the importance of determining whether you are suffering from a cold or the flu. These medications come in liquid, pill and inhaler form and can only be obtained through a prescription for those older than one year of age. Four antiviral medications are currently available in the US: zanamivir (Relenza), oseltamivir (Tamiflu), rimantadine (Flumadine) and amantadine (generic). In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved Tamiflu for use in children as early as two weeks old who have had flu symptoms for two days or longer. Studies have shown that these antiviral medications can protect you from getting 5 Conquering Colds and Flu

6 Prevention is always better than cure, and regular handwashing and avoiding infected people is the secret to staying healthy. sick if you are exposed to someone who has the flu. If you come into contact with someone who tells you they have been diagnosed with the flu, call your primary care physician to see if you should start a course of antiviral meds. Take-Away: Anti-virals can really only help you before the virus takes hold. This makes it important to seek medical care as early as possible if you have been in contact with an infected person. Home Treatments While it is important to follow your doctor s instructions, whether you have a cold or flu, there are also things you can do at home to help reduce your symptoms. These include: Drinking plenty of fluids Getting lots of rest Taking over-the-counter medications as directed Take-Away: Taking care of yourself is important, as is following the instructions of your doctor. Prevention The best way way to avoid complications from either a cold or the flu is to not get sick in the first place. The number one recommended preventative step for avoiding the flu is to get a flu vaccine. The vaccine takes one to two weeks to become effective, so using extra care to avoid anyone who may have the flu for that period is prudent. Measures to avoid being exposed to colds and the flu include: Frequent hand washing. Use anti-bacterial soap and hot water. Scrub long enough to sing the Happy Birthday song all the way through, twice. Avoidance: Don t come into close contact with those who are ill. During peak flu season, which is January and February, use caution when it comes to eating in restaurants or shopping in crowded malls. Clean your desk: Use disinfectant wipes to clean keyboards, telephones and dial pads, desktops and light switches at least once a week. Use the same method to clean kitchens and bathrooms at home. Do not touch your face, eyes, mouth or nose with your hands. Take-Away: Prevention is always better than cure, and regular handwashing and avoiding infected people is the secret to staying healthy. 6 Conquering Colds and Flu

7 Sources 1. NC Department of Health and Human Services: Flu Update 2. NC Department of Health and Human Services: Prepare For Flu Season 3. Center For Disease Control: Cold Versus Flu About Chapel Hill Primary Care Chapel Hill Primary Care offers a broad spectrum of comprehensive healthcare services for patients 15 years of age and older, including traditional primary care, long term preventive care, integrative medicine, diagnostic lab work, chronic disease management and women s health services. We appreciate that each patient is unique, and we utilize evidence-based, best medical practices to address our patients health concerns. Chapel Hill Primary Care has an on-site lab, no facility fees, and an attentive, supportive staff. When you need a partner in healthcare, we re here for you. 55 Vilcom Center Drive Suite 110 Chapel Hill, NC Ph: (919) Fax: (919) ChapelHillPrimaryCare.com 7 Conquering Colds and Flu

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