With all the medical advances we witness every day, it’s disappointing that we still haven’t figured out how to defeat the common cold and flu. These maladies have been with humanity at least since written history began. The average American will suffer through two to four colds each year, and millions will also endure at least one bout of the flu. Each episode can represent a week or two of lost productivity and enjoyment.
Even though there is no cure, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of catching one of these nasty conditions. And if you do catch a cold or flu, there are self-care techniques you can employ to ease your misery and feel better fast.
One of the first things you’ll need to determine to get on the road to recovery is whether you have a cold or the flu. Although they can feel similar, cold and flu are very different illnesses.
Both colds and flu are caused by viruses, and both share the symptoms of fatigue, cough, and nasal congestion. Colds, however, are restricted to the nose, throat, and surrounding air passages. Most colds are not accompanied by fever, chills, or the more severe symptoms identified with flu, and recovery is faster. Flu is almost always more severe than a cold. It hits suddenly with aches, a high fever, and chills. The flu typically runs its course in about a week, although you may feel uncomfortable for several weeks.
“Approximately four million severe cases of the flu are reported each year worldwide.”
Find a Flu Shot. There are several “flu shot locators” available online. These mini search tools will help you find a flu shot clinic near you. Type “flu shot locator” into a search engine to access a reputable site—the American Lung Association is usually a good bet (www.lungusa.org). These locators are usually most active during the months of October and November of each year.
The symptoms described here can be signs of a condition much more serious than an average cold or flu. See your healthcare professional if you’re experiencing any of the following.
“With colds and flu, you’re most contagious during the first 48 hours.”
Check out the following tips to feel better fast when you are battling a cold or flu.
Meningitis is an infection of the tissues and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Because meningitis can range from mild to life threatening—and because it can mimic the symptoms of the common cold and flu, especially in children—it’s important to be aware of the specific symptoms of meningitis.
If these symptoms are present—especially in children—see your healthcare provider right away. Often, meningitis caused by a virus can be treated simply at home because symptoms typically disappear within two weeks. Meningitis caused by bacteria, on the other hand, needs to be treated with antibiotics, and can be deadly if not properly cared for.
With all the myths floating around about colds and flu, it helps to be able to separate fact from fiction. Take a look at the following frequently asked questions (FAQs)—they’ll help you put ineffective remedies to rest and speed recovery.
Will antibiotics help me recover faster?
No. Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections. They’re useless for colds and flu, which are viral infections. But they may be needed for any secondary bacterial infections that may develop as complications of your cold or flu, like an ear or sinus infection.
Is it good to take a cough suppressant whenever you have a cough?
Not necessarily. If your cough is productive (meaning phlegm is coming up from your lungs), coughing can help you get better faster. Remember, if you are coughing up phlegm that is green, gray, or yellow, contact your healthcare provider. A dry, nonproductive cough that keeps you from sleeping has no benefit. Try a single-ingredient cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan at night.
Does taking Vitamin C help a cold?
Some researchers believe so. Vitamin C intake can possibly shorten the length of a cold and even make it less severe. However, it’s most effective when taken in the early stages of the virus. Try oranges or orange juice, strawberries, and/or supplements. (Always follow the recommended dosage).
Is it true that if you catch a cold early in the season, you won’t get another?
Sorry, but the answer is no. There are hundreds of different cold viruses. You won’t catch the same one again, but you may catch another.
There’s no question about it—the best way to deal with a cold or flu is to avoid it in the first place. By taking a few precautions, you can dramatically cut your chances of picking up one of these viruses, and be well on your way to staying healthy and productive this cold and flu season. Here are some tips to consider.
An annual flu shot is a way to reduce your chances of getting the flu. Influenza is a serious condition, and no matter what your age, you can still get it. The flu causes 50,000 deaths each year (mostly among those aged 65 years or older) and 114,000 hospitalizations in the US alone.
Much of the illness and death caused by the flu can be prevented by yearly flu shots. People in certain “high-risk” groups (those who may develop serious complications from the flu), and people who are in close contact with those at high-risk, should get a flu shot every year.
Some people should talk with a healthcare provider before getting a flu shot. These people include:
Get a flu shot six to eight weeks before flu season begins (sometime in October or No-vember). According to the NIH, getting a shot at this time will give your body time to produce enough antibodies to mount a strong defense during flu season, which hits its stride between late December and early March. Remember to get a new vaccine every year. Vaccines are designed for specific strains of the flu, which can be different every year.
“Vitamin C is most effective when taken before illness strikes or immediately after you’ve been exposed to a cold or the flu.”
Sore throats can be one of the most annoying and uncomfortable ailments you can have. It’s difficult to speak, swallow, or get a good night’s sleep. The good news is, sore throats are usually the result of a minor illness, and with proper care and attention, can often be treated quickly and effectively at home.
In this section we’ll discuss two of the most typical kinds of sore throat—the common, mild sore throat often associated with other illnesses or environmental factors, and strep throat, which is caused by a more serious bacterial infection.
Common Sore Throat. Most often you’ll find that the common sore throat accompanies the cold or flu. Postnasal drip (nasal drainage down the back of the throat) is usually the culprit. The common sore throat can also be caused by smoking, air pollution, low humidity, yelling, or breathing through the mouth for long periods of time.
Strep Throat. Strep throat is caused by a streptococcal (strep) bacterial infection in the back of the throat. Strep throat accounts for about 10 percent of sore throats in adults and between 15 and 30 percent of sore throats in children. Strep throat hits quickly and painfully, causing a sudden and severe sore throat. Strep throat is highly contagious, and is most often passed to others when an infected person expels strep bacteria by coughing or sneezing.
Now that we know more about common sore throats and strep bacterial infections, it’s important to be able to distinguish which type of sore throat you are experiencing. Check out the symptoms for both the common sore throat and strep bacterial infection listed below. In most cases, both conditions, when recognized early, can be treated at home without a trip to your healthcare provider.
If you are experiencing persistent and severe symptoms, they could be the sign of a much more serious condition. The following symptoms mean you may need to seek professional medical help for your sore throat.
If your doctor suspects that you have strep throat, a throat culture or rapid strep test—simple tests to determine the cause of your sore throat—will be ordered. In most cases, you’ll learn the results of the test within an hour or two. If you test positive for strep, your doctor will most likely prescribe an antibiotic to help you feel better.
Key Point: In some cases strep throat can trigger rheumatic fever, a condition that affects the heart and joints. Symptoms include weakness, joint pain, and jerking movements in the arms and legs, among others. See a healthcare professional if you experience these symptoms.
Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are small, red blisters, which form on the inside or outside of a person’s mouth, typically on the lip. Caused by a herpes virus, cold sores often appear after a cold, fever, or prolonged sun exposure, and are also associated with stress. A painful proposition, cold sores require patience because they take anywhere from seven to 10 days to fully heal.
If you’re experiencing a cold sore, the following steps may help you find relief and speed healing.
Despite the fact that cold sores are commonplace for the majority of Americans, there are several steps you can take to prevent cold sores. To reduce your chances of experiencing a cold sore, put the following tips into practice.
While most cold sores are painful, they’re seldom the sign of a serious problem. If your cold sore lasts longer than 2 weeks, or if you have multiple cold sores in a short amount of time, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she may prescribe a medication to reduce the severity and frequency of your cold sores.
A Word of Caution: If you have a cold sore, avoid touching the sore, and keep your hands away from your eyes. Herpes virus infections may have potentially serious complications, especially if they spread to the eyes. In fact, this is a frequent cause of corneal blindness in the US. If you’re experiencing a burning pain in or a rash near the eye or on the tip of your nose, see your healthcare provider immediately.
“Gargling every hour with a warm salt water solution can help soothe your sore throat.”
As mentioned before, in the majority of cases, common sore throat and strep throat can be treated at home. Use the tips mentioned here to treat yourself for sore throat or strep throat and feel better fast.
Treatment for strep throat is very similar to the treatment of a common sore throat. With this in mind, try the following tips.
Note: Even though strep throat can be treated at home, doctor prescribed antibiotics are an option. These antibiotics may relieve discomfort and shorten the time a person is contagious, but only if they are given antibiotics within 48 to 72 hours after symptoms begin.
Take a look at the following frequently asked questions—they’ll help you further understand this condition, and better care for yourself and your family.
I’ve had a sore throat for a while now, could it be mono?
Infectious mononucleosis (mono), often known as “the kissing disease,” includes sore throat as one of its symptoms. Mono is very common among the US population, but just because you have a sore throat, it doesn’t mean you have mono. If your symptoms last for more than a week or two, it may be a good idea to contact your healthcare professional.
What increases the risk for strep throat?
Plain and simple, increased risk for strep throat revolves around your close contact with others who are infected. Coughing, sneezing, and touching others who have the infection can spread strep.
Who is affected by strep throat?
Strep throat is responsible for five to 15 percent of sore throats in adults, and up to 30 percent of sore throats in children. Strep throat is most commonly found in children between the ages of three and 15.
I thought sore throats and strep throat were caused by cold weather. Isn’t that true?
No, it’s not true. Common sore throats are often the result of a cold or the flu, and strep throat is a bacterial infection. Sore throat is more common during colder months simply because individuals spend more time indoors around each other, and tend to spread illnesses more easily.
I’ve heard that strep throat can lead to other, more complicated infections. Is this true?
Strep throat can lead to other infections—like rheumatic fever—but only in rare cases. If your strep throat is severe and not treated properly, it is also possible for infection to spread into the middle ear or sinuses.
“Strep throat is responsible for five to 15 percent of sore throats in adults, and up to 30 percent of sore throats in children.”
Though there is very little we can do to prevent a sore throat or strep throat altogether, there are, however, a number of powerful steps we can take to lessen the chances of developing one of these conditions. Practicing the following steps can help you avoid the pain and discomfort associated with a sore or strep throat.
Sore throats are often associated with and confused for a condition known as Mononucleosis, A.K.A “the kissing disease.” Mononucleosis (or mono) is a viral infection common in older teens and adolescents. Its symptoms, in addition to a sore throat, include persistent fatigue, weakness, vertigo, swollen lymph nodes, aches, and an enlarged spleen. It is common for mono to last several weeks, but it is typically not severe. The best treatment for mono is getting plenty of rest, proper hydration, and taking over-the-counter medications to relieve general aches. You’ll want to work with your healthcare provider to identify and treat mono.
Strep throat and tonsillitis share many of the same symptoms including:
The main difference between strep throat and tonsillitis is that strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection and tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus. Tonsillitis is most common in children.
If you suspect that you have tonsillitis, you can treat symptoms with saltwater gargles, throat lozenges, and over-the-counter pain relievers. More rare cases of tonsillitis caused by bacteria may be treated like strep throat.
Tonsillectomy, although still fairly common, isn’t performed as often as it used to be. Surgery is only recommended when a chronic bacterial infection is resistant to treatment with medication, or when the infection results in serious complications.
“Humidify your home. Dry nasal passages are less resistant to viruses that lead to illness.”
Coughing is the body’s natural way of protecting the lungs from irritants. A certain amount of coughing is ordinary, and even natural, and can help you breathe better. However, prolonged and violent coughing can indicate that some kind of irritant is present in your breathing passages.
Coughing can also often be a symptom of an upper respiratory viral infection like a cold or the flu. Excess mucus draining down the back of your throat (postnasal drip) is often the cause of a cough. A persistent cough is not only uncomfortable, but can also cause your voice to become raw and horse, making it difficult to speak.
Coughs come in two varieties: productive and nonproductive. Productive coughs are the types that produce phlegm and mucus. Coughs of this type are healthy because they help to clear phlegm and mucus from the lungs.
Nonproductive coughs do not produce phlegm or mucus and are frequently the result of irritants such as smoke or dust. Oftentimes, nonproductive coughs occur near the end of a viral infection such as a cold. There are many causes for both productive and nonproductive coughs.
Sometimes, a persistent, harsh cough may be an important indicator that you’re experi-encing a more serious medical condition. If you experience any of the following symptoms, contact your healthcare provider right away.
Humidify Your Environment. A good humidifier is worth the investment when you’re sick because it will help moisturize your mucus membranes and keep you more resistant to illness. Make sure to change the filter on your humidifier as recommended—dirty filters can spread bacteria.
Most coughs that people experience—though frequently uncomfortable and certainly annoying—are not the sign of a more serious condition. These coughs are easily treated and soothed by employing self-care techniques. If you’re bothered by a particular cough, employing the strategies listed here may help you find the relief you’re looking for.
Most experts agree that frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of disease. Unfortunately, it’s been estimated that one out of three people do not wash their hands after using the restroom. By frequently washing your hands, you wash away germs that you have picked up from other people, contaminated surfaces, or from pets.
By practicing the above behaviors, you’ll better ensure your health, and the health of those around you.
“It’s been estimated that one out of three people do not wash their hands after using the restroom.”
Simply stated, a fever is a higher than normal body temperature. Normal body tem-perature is, on average, 98.6°F, although body temperature from person to person can vary by as much as one degree. Additionally, your own body temperature will fluctuate throughout the day—being cooler in the morning, and rising throughout the course of the day.
Fever is not an illness, but rather a sign that your body may be fighting off a virus or bacterial infection such as a cold, urinary tract infection, mumps, measles, or chicken pox. A fever up to 101°F can be helpful in the battle because it helps the body react to an infection.
There are no real symptoms of fevers other than the abnormally high body temperature that is the fever itself. There are however, several different grades of fevers, some more serious than others.
Normal Range: 97.5°F to 99.6°FSelf-Care Range: 99.6°F to 102°FCautionary Range: 102°F to 104°FEmergency Range: 104°F or higher
Although there are no real symptoms, an individual with a fever may look pale, shiver, or even have goose bumps. It is not uncommon for children to curl up in a ball to conserve body heat. No matter how cold an individual may appear, it’s not a good idea to bundle them up with extra blankets or extra clothing. Doing so will only cause body temperature to further rise.
A fever of 104°F or higher that lasts longer than 2 hours is a sign that you may be expe-riencing a serious medical condition. You should seek medical attention if this is the case, or if you experience any of the following symptoms.
Avoid Ice and Alcohol Baths. Although ice and alcohol baths were once recom-mended as a means to reduce a severe fever, they can actually be counterproductive. Only bathe in luke warm water to reduce a fever.
Treating a fever may be one of the most common self-care practices you’ll ever undertake, so it’s good to know some keys to reducing fever and helping you or your loved one feel better as quickly as possible. Check out some general home-treatment tips for fever. In addition to these general tips, treatment tips for fevers of different grades are also listed here.
Self-Care For Specific Fever Ranges
Self-Care Range: 99.6°F to 102°F
Caution Range: 102°F to 104°F
Emergency Range: 104°F or higher
An unexplained high fever in a child can be more problematic than in an adult because of the risk of seizure. Although fever-related seizures can look dramatic and are frightening for both parent and child, they can be managed effectively. Seizures usually cause no permanent damage.
Roughly one in 20 children under the age of four will experience a fever-related seizure. Seizures usually last less than 10 minutes, and oftentimes are over in a matter of seconds. If your child is having a fever-related seizure, keep the following in mind.
If your child experiences repeated seizures or seizures that last longer than 10 minutes, seek medical attention. If you have questions, or need help, contact your healthcare provider or nurse-line.
“A fever of 104°F or higher for longer than two hours, should be considered an emergency. Call your healthcare provider to seek advice.”
Two uncomfortable feelings in life are nausea and vomiting. Nausea is an unpleasant, churning sensation felt down inside the stomach, whereas vomiting is the expulsion of stomach contents through the esophagus and out of the mouth. Oftentimes, vomiting is preceded and even caused by an intense feeling of nausea.
Vomiting and nausea, though not diseases in and of themselves, often indicate the presence of a common viral infection—known as gastroenteritis—in the intestines. Other causes of nausea and vomiting may include adverse reactions to certain medications, food poisoning, pregnancy, and motion sickness.
If not cared for properly, nausea and vomiting can lead to other complications that include dehydration (lack of water in the body), aspiration (food lodged in the windpipe), or even serious damage to your body including tearing the food pipe. The rest of this section is dedicated to helping you treat and manage bouts of nausea and vomiting.
The signs and symptoms of nausea and vomiting are easy to identify. Often a nauseated person will feel the following symptoms.
While nausea and vomiting are usually symptoms of other medical conditions, there are a number of triggers that can make a person feel nauseous or vomit.
Even though nausea and vomiting are usually not serious, sometimes a trip to the doctor may be necessary. Seek medical attention immediately in the following situations.
“Each year, 76 million cases of food-borne illness are reported and 325,000 people are hospitalized due to tainted food.”
Food poisoning is one of the most common causes of nausea and vomiting. In fact, the more than 250 existing food-borne diseases account for an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,200 deaths in the United States each year.
Symptoms of food poisoning often include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Following simple guidelines on food preparation, handling, and storage can easily prevent the vast majority of food-borne illness. The following guidelines can help you avoid the nausea and vomiting associated with many food-borne illnesses.
Diarrhea occurs when bowel movements are looser or more watery than normal. Diarrhea can be caused by a number of things including stomach flu, medications, food poisoning, or parasitic infection—just to name a few.
Thankfully, in most cases, treating diarrhea is straightforward. Treatment involves the following. Stay hydrated. Make sure to take small, frequent drinks of water several times a day. If possible, it is recommended that you drink at least one liter of water each hour.
Eat mild foods. Try the B.R.A.T diet. Bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast can be easily digested, and are used by many hospitals to control diarrhea. Avoid fatty foods, coffee, and milk products until your diarrhea subsides. Consider OTCs. Over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol or Imodium may slow diarrhea, however, they won’t speed recovery. Work with your healthcare provider to determine what’s right for you.
The quiz below is designed to test your knowledge on the information presented in this section. Use this quiz as a tool to better understand how to care for yourself and others.
The information contained in this guide is based on the best health information available and has been reviewed for accuracy. This information is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have any questions about managing your own health and/or seeking medical care, please contact a medical professional.
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