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Cold & Flu

Last updated on Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Common Cold

Overview

Also known as nasopharyngitis or rhinopharyngitis, the common cold didn't get its name by accident. Adults usually have one to three colds per year, making it a leading cause of doctor visits and missed school and work in the US. There is no cure for the cold, and it can be caused by more than 200 different viruses.

Colds can be contracted during any time of year, but they most commonly occur during fall, winter, and early spring. This is likely due to a combination of school starting and weather getting colder, which prompts more people to stay indoors, where there is a higher chance of cold viruses being passed from person to person. Furthermore, many strains of cold-causing viruses survive better in low humidity, and the nose is often drier in colder weather. This makes people more susceptible to infection. Despite these facts, there is little evidence that simple exposure to cold temperatures increases your chances of catching a cold.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a cold usually take two to three days after exposure to develop and may last anywhere from two days to two weeks. However, most people recover within a week to ten days. Symptoms usually include, sore or itchy throat, nasal congestion, postnasal drip, sneezing, coughing, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and slight fever (less common in adults). Normally, nasal mucus begins clear and watery. After a couple days, the body's immune response thickens the mucus and changes it to a white, yellow, or even greenish color. Fevers (temperature over 100°F) due to colds are uncommon in adults and are often indicative of a more serious illness like a bacterial infection or the flu.

If symptoms persist after 7 to 10 days but do not worsen, you may be suffering from allergies. However, call your doctor if symptoms worsen or fail to improve after 7 to 10 days or are accompanied by high fever or difficulty breathing. These symptoms may be due to a more serious infection such as bronchitis, ear or sinus infections, or pneumonia.

Treatments

As there is no cure for the common cold, the goal of treatment is to provide symptomatic relief. Some effective treatment options include:

    • Getting a lot of bed rest;
    • Drinking plenty of fluids;
    • Gargling salt water and using lozenges to help relieve sore throat;
    • Using a decongestant, nasal spray, or saline rinse to relieve nasal congestion;
    • Taking an over-the-counter analgesic to relieve pain, headaches, and light fever.

Use over-the-counter cold relievers with care. They can alleviate discomfort but cannot cure the cold or hasten recovery. Many can in fact cause side-effects such as stomach discomfort, dizziness, drowsiness, or trouble sleeping. Antibiotics should never be used to treat a cold. There are also some "folk remedies" believed to prevent or shorten a cold. You can also try these.

    • Zinc may reduce the symptoms and duration of a cold but may cause nausea. Zinc nasal sprays should never be used because they have been reported to cause a permanent loss of the ability to smell in some people.
    • Honey may be used to help treat coughs and soothe a sore throat.
    • Using a humidifier or facial steaming may also help alleviate symptoms.

Some people point out that Echinacea, a herbal supplement, may help reduce cold symptoms. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Vitamin C is also essential for our bodies, but similarly, no scientific evidence shows that it can reduce the severity of a cold.

Prevention

You are much more likely to catch a cold if:

    • Someone with a cold sneezes, coughs, or blows their nose near you;
    • You touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching a contaminated surface;
    • You come in contact with someone who is contagious. Colds are usually most contagious for the first 2 to 3 days after symptoms develop and are not typically contagious after the first week.

Most viruses can survive for up to three hours on skin or other surfaces, so:

    • Wash or sanitize your hands often;
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth;
    • If possible, avoid being around people who have colds;
    • Boost your immune system by exercising, eating right, getting plenty of sleep, drinking plenty of water, managing stress, and avoiding drinking and smoking.

You should also note that if you are prone to allergies, your chances of contracting a cold are higher.

The Flu

Overview

The flu is one of the most serious public health issues in the US and throughout the world. You probably always hear about it late in the fall, winter, and early spring since the flu is most prevalent during those seasons. The flu, more properly called influenza, is a viral infection caused by influenza viruses A and B. However, there are new strains surfacing every year or so: some infamous examples include H1N1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (avian flu).

Sneezing, coughing, and talking can spray out droplets that carry viruses, which may infect another person. Moreover, touching something with the viruses on it and then contacting the mouth, eyes, or nose may lead to infection. The incubation period (the period between becoming infected and developing symptoms) of the viruses in your body can vary from 1 to 4 days.

Symptoms

Symptoms of the flu include fever over 100°F, headache, body aches, chills, fatigue, dry cough, loss of appetite, and congestion. The worst symptoms usually last for the first 3 days, and one gets better after a week or two. Rare but serious complications of the flu may include ear infection, sinus infection, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Some people have confusion about stomach flu, which is actually a misleading term. Stomach flu is actually called gastroenteritis and is the inflammation of the stomach and the intestines. Viruses, bacteria, or parasites could be the cause, while influenza is only caused by a virus. Another big difference is that the flu does not cause vomiting or diarrhea in adults. Another confusion is between a cold and the flu. If you have fever, headache, and extreme exhaustion, you most likely have the flu.

Treatments

All types of flu are generally not pleasant, but you don't have to be too afraid of it. In most cases, you can get better without going to the doctors or having serious complications. Many people who were infected by H1N1, for example, got better without even realizing that they were infected by the infamous virus. Obviously, if you are ever in doubt, talk to a doctor, a nurse, or another health professional.

Getting plenty of rest is important, and so is drinking a lot of fluid. It is possible to take some antiviral medicine within 48 hours of the first symptoms to shorten the duration of the illness, but they are often not necessary. Some people find that taking a shower can provide some temporary relief.The best thing to control the fever is to take some over-the-counter symptom-relief medicines, such as acetaminophen or aspirin.

Prevention

Public health officials urge everyone to cover the mouth using your elbow or tissue paper (even better) and not your hands when sneezing or coughing. Wash hands frequently with soap (any type of soap is fine) for at least 20 seconds, and take advantage of hand-sanitizers!

You can also get a flu shot from local clinics or pharmacies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this for everyone over two years of age. If you are a UC Berkeley student, you may go to the Tang Center. People who are allergic to eggs, who have had bad reactions to flu shots, and who are already sick with fever should not get a flu shot. However, taking a flu shot will not give you the flu. Many of the negative myths of flu shots are generally not true, and flu shots are usually recommended. Call the advice nurse or contact the International Travel Clinic at (510) 643-7177 for more information if you are a student from UC Berkeley. Remember, everyone from Cal can use Tang Center services, and many of the fees are similar to fees for SHIP members.

Finally, there is no scientific evidence that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can strengthen your immune system, but it definitely won't hurt and is important for your overall health. Stress and all-nighters can generally lower the effectiveness of your immune system, which may make you more vulnerable to different illnesses.

Tags: coldsfeverfluinfluenzaviruses

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