As rainy season ends and winter starts, doctors see more patients complaining coughs, colds and fevers. Their waiting rooms are full of people sneezing and coughing. it is not actually the cold weather that causes the infection, but what we do in cold weather that causes the infection. We often stay indoors in cold weather where air is circulated in closed spaces.

Upper respiratory infection(URI) is one of the common causes for doctors’ visits. URIs in adults comprise of common cold, streptococcal pharyngitis and sinusitis. Influenza, commonly called FLU is a viral infection similar to common cold but has more severe symptoms.

Common cold

As the name suggests, commonest upper respiratory tract  infection is common cold, caused by viruses. When an infected person sneezes or coughs he or she is shedding viruses which spread from person to person by air droplets and through contact with infected surfaces. The strength of our immune system determines how often and how severely we are affected with cold.  As common cold is caused by different viruses, it is not uncommon to see a person suffer from more than one or two infections in a row.

Usual symptoms of Viral infections are

  • Runny nose. The discharges are watery to begin with but later can turn thick, greenish or yellowish in colour.
  • Watery eyes
  • Throat pain
  • Feeling of congestion in throat and sinuses
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Fever if present, is usually low grade fever

This is why you do not need antibiotics

As the popular saying goes ”common cold subsides in 7 days without treatment and in 1 week with treatment”, it usually does subside in a week or two with simple measures. It is advised that rest, symptomatic treatment for throat pain, congestion, fever and cough are enough and antibiotics are to be avoided.

Because antibiotics are only effective for bacterial infections after they have developed, most doctors do not prescribe antibiotics. This will save the person not only from the side effects of antibiotics but also from the development of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains in the society which is a major threat faced by modern medicine today.

Some simple measures to handle the symptoms of common cold

  • Take plenty of rest.
  • Lozenges can give temporary relief from sore throat.
  • Can take paracetamol for relief of mild pain and fever. Do not take these for more than 3 to 4 days.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Warm soups may give relief from cold and congestion
  • Steam/humidifier, inhaling steam may relieve the stuffy nose and congestion.
  • Salt water gargle may help the itchy and irritated throat by removing the germs and decreasing swelling in the throat. Add a teaspoon of salt to warm water, use this water to gargle the throat and spit the water. This can be done 2 to 3 times a day.

How can you prevent the spread to other people

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Make it a habit to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze.
  • Take off from work for couple of days when you have sniffles; you will be avoiding spreading the germs to your colleagues.
  • Keep away from elderly and infants to avoid spreading the infection.
  • Don’t share towels with others.
  • Use separate water cups for drinking water.
  • If you have elderly, kids, people suffering with chronic health conditions and/or pregnant women in your household, ensure that they take FLU vaccine.

Streptococcal bacterial pharyngitis

Usually marked by throat pain. On examination, redness, swelling and exudate in the throat and tonsils are seen. Person may have tender nodes in the front of the neck. Usually this does not comprise of  runny nose, watery eyes or congestion. If this is suspected, doctor may perform rapid streptococcal test and prescribe antibiotics along with other medicines for symptom relief.

Influenza or Flu

Flu is caused by viruses. The symptoms are similar to common cold but severe in intensity. Flu is usually marked by severe body pains, headache, tiredness, fever, chills and sweats along with sore throat and cough. Though the symptoms of Flu are severe compared to common cold, it subsides on its own with some simple remedies mentioned above. Sometimes it can lead to Pneumonia and complications. If symptoms are suspicious for flu, it is advisable to consult your physician right away.

Sinusitis

If the onset of illness is severe with at least  3 consecutive days of fever, pain over sinuses (pain around the nose, fore head area), it is a suspicion for sinusitis. If the symptoms flare up after the initial improvement of common cold, sinusitis is a possibility. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

When do you need to see your Physician

  • Children below 5 years, elderly people, people suffering with chronic health conditions, having decreased immunity secondary to other medical problems need to have  a low threshold to see the physician if symptoms are severe.
  • Pregnant women need to be careful in using medicines without doctors’ prescription. If you are pregnant and have Flu symptoms, or having a suspicion for streptococcal infection or bacterial sinusitis, you should see your doctor immediately.
  • If symptoms are getting worse after you were better for some time
  • If there is shortness of breath or
  • If there is blood in sputum or chest pain, which can be symptoms of pneumonia, a complication that can happen from common cold.

References

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/in-depth/cold-remedies/art-20046403?pg=2
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719
  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/complications/

-Dr.Lavanya Aribandi

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