(ex: strep throat, bacterial pneumonia, bacterial sinusitis)
If you tend to get “colds” that develop suddenly and occur at the same time every year, it’s possible that you actually have seasonal allergies. Although colds and seasonal allergies may share some of the same symptoms, they are very different diseases.
Common colds are caused by viruses, while seasonal allergies are immune system responses triggered by exposure to allergens, such as seasonal tree or grass pollens.
Treatment of a common cold may include rest, pain relievers and over-the-counter cold remedies, such as decongestants. A cold usually lasts three to 10 days, although some may last as long as two or three weeks. A common cold does not need antibiotics.
Treatment of seasonal allergies may include over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays and decongestants, and avoidance of exposure to allergens where possible. Seasonal allergies may last several weeks.
General aches and pains
Fatigue and weakness
Cold remedies are almost as common as the common cold, but are they effective? Nothing can cure a cold, but there are some remedies that might help ease your symptoms and keep you from feeling so miserable. Here’s a look at some common cold remedies for adults and what’s known about them.
If you catch a cold, you can expect to be sick for one to two weeks. That doesn’t mean you have to be miserable. Besides getting enough rest, these remedies might help you feel better:
The list of ineffective cold remedies is long. The most common one that does not work:
In spite of ongoing studies, the scientific jury is still out on some popular cold remedies, such as vitamin C and echinacea. Here’s an update on some common alternative remedies:
Echinacea seems to be most effective if you take it when you notice cold symptoms and continue it for seven to 10 days. It appears to be safe for healthy adults, but it can interact with many drugs. Check with your doctor before taking echinacea or any other supplement.
Some studies show that zinc lozenges or syrup reduce the length of a cold by one day, especially when taken within 24 hours of the first signs and symptoms of a cold.
Zinc also has potentially harmful side effects. Talk to your doctor before considering the use of zinc to prevent or reduce the length of colds.
Although usually minor, colds can make you feel miserable. It’s tempting to try the latest remedy, but the best thing you can do is take care of yourself. Rest, drink fluids and keep the air around you moist. Remember to wash your hands frequently.
Recently, I visited my 75-year-old grandmother, who was suffering from cough and cold symptoms. She had similar symptoms last year and was prescribed a course of antibiotics by her doctor. Ultimately, she felt better, either due to antibiotics or to time and rest, but it’s hard to know for sure which was most helpful. This year, she experienced cough and cold symptoms again and went to her doctor expecting another antibiotic prescription for this episode. However, the doctor felt that she most likely had a viral infection and therefore didn’t need antibiotics.
Since my grandmother can be very persistent, the doctor ultimately did prescribe antibiotics again. My grandmother improved, but about three weeks later she developed severe diarrhea and was admitted to the hospital for dehydration and kidney failure. Doctors diagnosed her with an intestinal infection due to bacteria called Clostridium difficile, a condition associated with antibiotic use. To treat this infection, my grandmother required a two-week prescription of a new antibiotic. Today, she says she has not felt the same since her intestinal infection. In her age group, she’s lucky to have survived.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed for outpatients are unnecessary. Most of these prescriptions are for short-term respiratory illnesses, which are often caused by viruses and don’t respond to antibiotics. Although considered miracle drugs when first discovered last century, antibiotics are not harmless. Antibiotics are necessary and potentially lifesaving for serious bacterial infections (like pneumonia or meningitis); however, they can also cause serious consequences, as in my grandmother’s case. Studies show that antibiotics, in general, cause 1 in every 5 emergency department visits due to rashes, allergic reactions and diarrhea.
To avoid incorrect antibiotic use, let’s review when antibiotics work and when they don’t, and what you can do to prevent viral infections.
Most upper respiratory infections can involve mucus production, fatigue, headaches, body aches, congestion and a cough. During this time, it’s most helpful to get a lot of rest and maintain your fluid intake. Using a humidifier or breathing in steam during a hot shower can help keep your throat from drying out. Lozenges and other over-the-counter cough suppressants can help soothe your throat from persistent coughing. You should contact your doctor if you have persistent fevers for three or more days over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), shortness of breath or if your symptoms last longer than 10 days for most conditions. If your condition continues to worsen and/or is persistent, your physician may obtain an x-ray or recommend antibiotics and/or other treatments, such as inhalers.
Despite rest and over-the-counter remedies, viral infections can sometimes predispose people to bacterial infections. However, taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection doesn’t prevent this complication or shorten your duration of symptoms. Vaccines, such as those against influenza or pneumonia, are crucial for preventing severe illness and controlling wide-spread disease in the public. Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re up-to-date with recommended vaccines.
The flu shot is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months and is widely available through your doctor, local pharmacy and perhaps your employer.
For viral infections that don’t have vaccines available, practice preventive measures to deter viruses from causing infection. These measures include: using “cough etiquette,” (i.e. covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, coughing into the fold of your arm instead of into your hands), washing your hands often with soap and warm water, using alcohol-based waterless soap, avoiding shaking hands with others when you’re ill and disinfecting common household surfaces. Viruses can spread in respiratory droplets through the air and live for up to a few hours on household surfaces. Common household cleaning agents can disinfect smart phones, laptops, tablets, tabletops, countertops, doorknobs and other common surfaces.
If you plan to visit your doctor for persistent or severe symptoms, make sure to set goals for the visit. Come prepared to discuss your symptoms, treatments and preventive measures. Don’t expect to receive an antibiotic prescription unless you really need one for a potential bacterial infection. Also, make sure to develop a follow-up plan with your doctor – know whom to call and what to do for worsening symptoms. Sites like conversationsforhealth.com can help you prepare your questions and possible treatment plans.
Understanding the above and practicing infection prevention are your best defenses during cold and flu season. Proper antibiotic management can protect you from unnecessary and unwanted complications.