A winter cold: Not inevitable
Catching the common cold can feel like a common part of winter. Children can get three to eight colds a year; adults can get two to four. A cold is a viral infection affecting the mucus in the lining of the nose and throat. It can last a few days to a few weeks. Because many viruses cause colds, a vaccine to prevent colds is unlikely.
Steps to prevent a cold:
Wash hands often. Colds are transmitted from person-to-person contact. Wash more frequently or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if someone in your home has a cold or you have been in public places.
Keep your hands away from your eyes and nose. When you touch these areas with germy hands, you are infected.
Do not share your food. Sharing drinking glasses or eating utensils with someone who has a cold is a big no-no.
Avoid exposing infants. Infants should stay away from people with colds and crowded public areas. An infant with a cold is more likely to experience complications than older children and adults.
Inform your children. Encourage children to wash their hands and teach them to cough into their elbow.
If you do get a cold:
Try a saline nasal spray or nasal irrigation. If I could choose one home remedy, this would be it! It should be done up to four times a day while you have a cold, to help flush away the virus or bacteria in your nasal passages. It also decreases pressure and inflammation by limiting the need to blow the nose. Blowing your nose too hard can push the mucous into the sinuses and worsen symptoms.
Find pain relief. Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen help with pain and Ibuprofen can decrease inflammation.
Drink honey and lemon. Both have antimicrobial properties and can sooth your throat. Studies show two teaspoons of honey is more effective for a cough than cough suppressant dextromethorphan. Do not give honey to children under 12 months.
Stay hydrated. Water, juice or tea with honey help loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. Avoid alcohol, coffee and caffeine. Spicy soups help open nasal passages.
Use a humidifier. Moistening the air, especially at high elevations, helps thin the mucous. Steamy baths and showers also help.
Take zinc. Zinc lozenges or syrup make it harder for the cold viruses to grow or bind to the lining of your nose. Avoid intra-nasal zinc preparations as they can risk affecting your sense of smell.
Consider over-the-counter medicines. Decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines and intranasal steroid sprays are all available at local pharmacies and can provide different forms of relief. Ask the pharmacist or your medical provider about the appropriate medicines for you.
Cold vs. Flu
A cold typically comes on slowly, while the flu, or influenza, usually starts rapidly with severe symptoms. The flu is a respiratory illness, symptoms typically include fever, cough, headache, body aches, sore throat and nasal congestion. It may include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Treatment for the flu and a cold are similar. There are antiviral medications that can be prescribed to treat the flu and could be considered. These medications work best when started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Getting a flu shot helps prevent the flu.
Viral vs. Bacterial Infection
Because many common cold strains are viral infections, antibiotics will not be effective. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can have side effects and increase your body’s resistance to antibiotics.
Phlegm color does not indicate if the infection is viral or bacterial. Usually the length of the illness can distinguish between the two. A bacterial infection is often a secondary infection that develops after a viral infection. If symptoms last longer than 10 days and there is a thick nasal discharge, consider a visit with a medical provider.
When to seek medical attention:
Persistent Fever (>102º F)
Sudden, severe pain in the face or head
Swelling or redness around eyes
Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
Symptoms such as thick nasal discharge longer than 10 days that initially improve, then worsen again.
While there is no magical or quick cure, you can be proactive in preventing a cold or the flu. If the cold methods above do not decrease symptoms or it feels like you are getting worse, make an appointment with your care provider or stop by urgent care.
Michelle Feeney, FNP, sees patients at Barton Urgent Care and Family Practice at Stateline Medical Center. If you are not sure if you should see a doctor, contact Barton Urgent Care at 775-589-8900.