Achoo! Coping with Winter Colds and Flu
And how to tell them apart
Photo courtesy of DuPage Medical Group
That telltale tickle in your throat , a runny nose, fever and chills, coughing and chest congestion, aches and fatigue . . . it’s that time of year when winter ailments announce their arrival in an array of symptoms. But just what is it that has taken up residence in your body? Is it the common cold, the latest viral version of influenza, or something worse, such as a bacterial infection or pneumonia? We asked west suburban doctors for their counsel on how to prevent catching a virus, how to tell the difference between colds and flu, and the best approach to handling whatever comes your way . . .
We all know we should wash our hands in warm soapy water, use sanitizers regularly, and try to stay away from people who are sick and spreading germs. That said, avoiding viruses isn’t always possible, especially for families with children in school or elderly people in health care facilities. If you get a contagious winter illness, you can contain the risk of spreading it to others by staying home until you’re better or going out in public with a face mask or a tissue to cover your sneezes and coughs.
Medical experts agree, however, that the best way to prevent the flu is by getting the annual flu vaccine. Yet a recent survey by NORC at the University of Chicago revealed that 41 percent of Americans are not planning to get the flu shot this year, although 43 percent reported having been vaccinated as of mid-November. Survey respondents who refused to get vaccinated cited concerns about side effects and the potential of getting the flu from the vaccine as well as doubts about its effectiveness. Sadly, the fewer people who receive the vaccine, the less effective it is likely to be, as the flu spreads throughout the population. The vaccine also can reduce the risk of being hospitalized or even dying from the disease.
According to Dr. Douglas Ambler of Northwestern Medicine’s Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, the flu season got underway locally in December and “usually it’s only going to progress” over time. “The flu season typically ends in March or April, depending on the season, but flu doesn’t ever really go away,” he says.
Health professionals follow the weekly national flu tracking by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which types the strains of flu circulating as Type A or Type B. “Vaccines cover two strains of A and two strains of B,” Ambler explains. He notes that early results from this year’s vaccine are promising for Type A strains.
“The hard part is, once the flu gets going, you can see a second strain later in the season,” adds Ambler. The bottom line: “I tell patients you can’t get the flu shot too late and you can’t get it too early. It takes roughly two weeks for the body to build up antibodies.” If you wait until the flu season is in full swing, you put yourself at greater risk of developing the flu.
But are fears of the flu vaccine founded? Ambler says no. “The vaccine is dead … so the flu shot can’t give you the flu. It’s so safe that we want all our pregnant patients to get the flu shot.”
KNOW YOUR RISK
The flu vaccine is particularly important for those at high risk of developing a serious or even deadly case of influenza, due to underlying medical conditions or age. Dr. Krunal Patel, who specializes in internal medicine at the Elmhurst Clinic and Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, points to such “co-morbidities” as chronic lung disease and heart disease that can cause lethal complications of the flu, as can asthma, diabetes, a weakened immune system, and neurological and other health conditions.
The CDC estimates the 2017-18 flu season was one of the deadliest in decades, with more than 80,000 influenza-related deaths and 900,000-plus hospitalizations. The CDC also states that pregnant women, children under the age of five (and especially younger than two), adults age 65 and over, and Native Americans are at higher risk of serious illness from the flu.
When should you start to worry? If you just have a common cold or if you’re an otherwise healthy person who gets the flu, chances are the symptoms will resolve in a few days or a week. You can differentiate between the flu and a cold by the symptoms (see chart below).
“The big difference with the flu is a higher fever, from 102 to 103 degrees, chills, body aches and headache. It typically develops one to two days after exposure,” Dr. Patel explains. “A cold usually involves nasal congestion and a cough.” He suggests consulting a physician if you still have symptoms after seven to 10 days, especially if the symptoms are worsening or if you experience new difficulties such as facial pain, the inability to keep food down, or white material at the back of the throat that could indicate strep throat, which is a bacterial infection.
Symptoms of pneumonia, the most common complication of the flu, include a “high fever, chest discomfort, a cough with sputum and shortness of breath,” he says. “Elderly people may have mental status changes such as being confused.”
Children are at higher risk for complications from influenza as well. “A child has a little bit less reserves and can get sick very quickly,” cautions Dr. Kathleen Mahan, a pediatrician with DuPage Medical Group in Lombard. Warning signs of a serious case of the flu in children include “fast breathing or trouble breathing, change in skin color to bluish, not drinking enough fluids, not waking up, fever with a rash, and other flu-like symptoms,” she says. “The highest risk are children less than five years old and those with a history of asthma, Type 1 diabetes or frequent respiratory disorders. All children are at very high risk and all should get the flu shot. We see a much higher risk of death with children.”
Babies under six months old, however, are not eligible for the flu shot. In that case, she says, “It’s important for family members to get flu shots to protect the baby.” The common cold, on the other hand, is much less of a threat. “Colds are not as severe. Usually, kids with colds will continue to play.”
THE RIGHT KIND OF CARE
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that antibiotics will cure a cold or flu, but because both are primarily viral rather than bacterial diseases, “antibiotics can cause harm” says Ambler, and provide “no benefit” in those cases. If a bacterial disease, such as pneumonia, does develop, he suggests getting a chest x-ray to confirm the problem before turning to antibiotics.
If you end up with a sinus infection, take heart. “Most sinus infections will get better on their own,” he says.
High-risk patients, on the other hand, may benefit from anti-viral drugs, which must be administered within the first 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. Dr. Ambler notes that anti-viral drugs are appropriate for anyone who is hospitalized with the flu, but otherwise young and healthy people are not good candidates.
As for managing symptoms, whether to take over-the-counter drugs is mostly up to you. Chances are they won’t make the illness go away any faster, but if they make you feel better, go ahead. For parents who are treating sick children, Dr. Mahan suggests giving them fever-reducing drugs such as Tylenol or Motrin and basic supportive care, with plenty of fluids and rest.
“If parents are ever worried, they should never hesitate to bring the child in” to a doctor’s office or an urgent-care facility. The same holds true for adults because, though we’ve become accustomed to seasonal colds and flu, the potential complications can be deadly.
With so many strains of the flu circulating each flu season, Dr. Mahan says, “You can still benefit from the flu shot even if you’ve already had the flu.”Edit Module