By JAMIE LOBER
This time of year, doctors’ offices are swamped with patients suffering from the common cold and influenza. Both are respiratory illnesses but are caused by different viruses. Often the conditions present have mirroring symptoms and make it difficult for people to determine which is to blame. In general, the flu is more intense than a cold. “The flu usually starts off abruptly with a fever reaching temperatures of 103 or 104, headache, body aches and progresses into a cough and sore throat,” said Dr. Toby Smith, pulmonologist at Summit Medical Center. Sometimes people come in with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea and believe they have the flu, but typically that is a gastrointestinal virus. A cold tends to be little more subtle. “Colds may start out with a runny nose, cough and body aches but does not have a fever,” said Smith.
It is natural to wonder the cause. “The influenza virus is the cause of the flu, and colds are usually rhinoviruses,” said Dr. Rachel Kingree, also a pulmonologist at Summit Medical Center. Since there is no good way to predict when this difficult season will end, it is best to be prepared and know how to respond.
Those who become sick may try some athome remedies for the common cold. In addition to resting, some people turn to over-the-counter medicines and decongestants. “Be careful that the over-the-counter medicines will not interact with some of the medications that are prescribed,” said Smith. It is also recommended that someone with the symptoms drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration.
In the case of the flu, the key is to act early. “If you can get in touch with your doctor within the first forty-eight hours of the onset of symptoms, there are some medicines we can use to fight the flu that may decrease the length of the illness by two to three days,” said Smith. It is also not too late to get a flu shot this year. “You still have time because we have not seen a peak, and any protection you can afford yourself is in your advantage,” added Kingree. Even if a person happens to catch the flu after getting the shot, the odds of further illness and being severe enough for hospitalization are decreased.
It should be noted that it is a misconception that the flu shot will cause the flu. In most cases, the shot is just not accurate against the type of flu strain going around that year. “Each flu season, in about February or March, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention gets together with epidemiologists from other parts of the country and world to see what needs to go into the following season’s flu vaccine,” said Kingree.“The Center can only make their best educated guess and sometimes the flu strain most prevalent on the other side of the world is not what ends up making it to us,” she added.
For both cold and flu, if symptoms persist, it is recommended that a person see a doctor. “We check ears, nose and throat and listen to the heart and lungs,” Smith said. The main thing is to establish that patients have not developed a complication like pneumonia, with a chest x-ray frequently being performed in conjunction with taking a thorough history and examining the patient. “If someone comes in for cold or flu, we see if they have sinus pain and tenderness or ear pain that might indicate an ear or sinus infection that needs to be treated. We also check to see if they have an underlying lung disease or are having trouble breathing, and if they seem to be getting worse rather than better,” explained Kingree. This determines whether the person will need further testing, antibiotic therapy, hospital admission or if the virus will just run its course.
It is advised that someone with cold or flu symptoms monitor their condition. “Sometimes if symptoms are prolonged, or we think the patient may have pneumonia, a doctor will use antibiotics, but they are not effective against the cold virus itself,” said Smith. If a person is not recovering within a week, doctors are concerned that something else is going on or that the person might be developing
a secondary infection. Consider what is normal. “The worst symptoms for the flu are within the first five days, and it is a hard-hitting virus,” Kingree stated. The unpleasant symptoms for colds are also over within five to seven days, but it is not uncommon to have a stuffy nose or cough afterwards.
Of course, doctors encourage their patients to be considerate of others during the contagious period, in the first twenty-four hours, and not share drinks, kiss or have unnecessary contact with others. “Some doctors suggest even wearing a mask, which keeps you from coughing on people that will spread germs,” said Kingree.
A helpful recommendation when the person has recovered from the illness is to change their toothbrush, preventing a re-infection.
For people who have been lucky enough not to get sick this season, there are some hints to maintain good health. “The biggest thing for preventing the flu would be to get your flu vaccine especially if you are in the high risk group which is considered to be young persons, those with chronic medical problems and older people,” said Smith. Washing hands thoroughly is also important. “It is best to prevent the illness before you get it. But if you do get a cold or the flu, do not be shy about taking the time you need to recover. It is proven that you will get better faster in the long-run if you take the time up front to rest and take care of yourself,” advised Kingree.