The winter months are approaching, and so are the sore throats, coughs and nasal congestion that go along with the cold and flu season. These symptoms are common to a number of illnesses, and fortunately, many of these ailments can be managed without having to see the doctor, and incurring the time or financial inconvenience of an office visit.
Charles Stern, MD, a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Waco offers the following information and advice to help determine if it’s the cold, the flu or something else, and the best treatment methods for each:
The Common Cold
The “common cold” is caused by various viruses, and has an incubation period of one-two weeks. The virus is transmitted by airborne droplets that are introduced into the air through sneezing or coughing. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, sneezing, congestion, sore throat and cough.
According to Dr. Stern, respiratory symptoms will typically last around seven-ten days, and there currently is no evidence-based treatment that will shorten the duration of the illness.
The best way to prevent contracting a cold is through frequent hand washing, covering your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing and reducing, whenever possible, exposure to infected individuals. If you do get sick, you can treat the symptoms through prescription or over-the-counter medications including:
- Decongestants (like Sudafed or Mucinex D) or expectorants (like Mucinex) for congestion. Dr. Stern also suggests using saline nasal irrigations (neti pot) to relieve congestion.
- Acetaminophen (like Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (like Advil) for fever.
- Dextromethoraphan (like Mucinex DM, Robitussin DM or CF or Delsym) for cough.
The Flu (Influenza)
Influenza (flu) usually appears between the months of September and March, and is caused by influenza viruses. The incubation period is one-two weeks and the virus is transmitted the same way as the common cold. The flu usually lasts 10-14 days.
Flu symptoms are the same as those of the common cold, with the addition of high fever, chills and body aches for three-five days.
In addition to following the same hygiene measures for those recommended for the common cold, influenza vaccines (both in injectable and nasal forms) are also available. Vaccines consist of various strains of influenza that are anticipated to surface and are administered October through December.
Flu symptoms are the same as those of the common cold, with the addition of high fever, chills and body aches for three-five days. Recommended treatments include those for the cold in addition to antiviral medications (like Tamiflu). Dr. Stern cautions, however, that these medications must be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms in order to be effective, and most only shorten the course of the illness by a day or two.
Bronchitis (Chest Cold)
Most cases of bronchitis, or chest cold, are caused by viruses, but there is the rare occasion of bacterial bronchitis, such as Pertussis (also known as whooping cough). Bronchitis is transmitted and has the same symptoms as the common cold, with the possible addition of a wheezing or productive (phlegm-producing) cough that will produce green, yellow or brown sputum. Bronchitis coughs may last up to three weeks.
In addition to following the same preventative measures as the common cold, a Tdap vaccine that immunizes against Pertussis is also available. If you contract bronchitis, follow the recommended treatments for symptoms of the common cold. If you are wheezing, it is recommended to see a physician who may prescribe an inhaler.
Dr. Stern adds that antibiotics will not change the course or length of bronchitis, except for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders like emphysema or those with compromised immune systems.
Sinusitis (Sinus Infection)
Sinusitis is caused by viruses and allergies. An individual will usually also have other allergic symptoms such as itching of the eyes, nose or throat in addition to nasal congestion, and sinus pain and pressure in the cheeks, upper teeth or forehead. If symptoms persist for 10 days accompanied by discolored nasal discharge, the sinusitis may be bacterial.
Frequent saline nasal irrigations (neti pot) two-five times a day will help relieve congestion. Nasal cortisone sprays prior to and through peak allergy seasons (fall and spring) will also help minimize symptoms. Dr. Stern also suggests using a decongestant or expectorant, such as Sudafed non-drying formula or Mucinex D.
Antibiotics are usually reserved for individuals who have had sinusitis symptoms for 10 days or more. Dr. Stern notes that even scientific studies have shown equal relief with frequent saline nasal irrigations plus decongestants compared to a course of antibiotics.
Strep throat is caused by the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes, and actually causes only nine percent of all sore throats. A majority of sore throats are instead caused by viruses. Strep throat seems to be most common during the beginning and end of the school year.
The major symptom is a sore throat that comes on severely and abruptly, usually accompanied by fever, chills, headache and nausea.
Penicillin is the antibiotic of choice. If an individual is allergic to penicillin, then an appropriate substitute can be prescribed. Dr. Stern stresses that while symptoms usually improve within 48 hours, individuals should take the full 10-day course of antibiotics to prevent a rare complication known as rheumatic fever. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen and Chloraseptic can be used for throat pain.
“When taking medications for any of these conditions, be sure to take them as directed and review warnings prior to consumption,” Dr. Stern said. He also offered the following advice on when individuals should seek an appointment with their physician:
- Recurring high fever greater than 101 degrees orally or development of sudden fever and/or chills after a period of feeling better during a respiratory illness.
- Wheezing or shortness of breath.
- Pleurisy – pain in your chest — when taking in a deep breath.
- Severe sore throat or ear pain.
- Cough lasting more than three weeks and not responding to regular treatment.
- Sinus pain and congestion lasting more than 10 days and not responding to regular treatment.
- Symptoms worsen after a two-to-three-day period of improvement.
As always, Dr. Stern advises visiting the nearest Emergency Room or calling 911 if symptoms are serious.