Winter time is a time when many of us suffer from colds and “the Flu”. The symptoms of cough, aches, runny nose and scratchy throat are well known to all of us. What we don’t always know is how to deal with them. Which types of Over The Counter (OTC) meds are helpful? When is it a good idea to go to the doctor to get checked? Do I need antibiotics?
This malady that we refer to as the common cold is indeed common. Probably ¾ of the population will catch a cold each year. Families with kids are the most at risk, especially those that have kids in school or preschool.
This infection is caused by a number of viruses. We don’t develop lasting immunity because there are so many viruses that cause colds, and because these viruses are constantly changing (mutating). That means that the body never develops antibodies to effectively fight off the infection.
The best management of a cold is to prevent it. The cornerstone of prevention is hand washing.
You should wash your hands frequently throughout the day. We all know about washing our hands before eating and after using the bathroom. But what about when we are around other people? Meeting friends or coworkers often involves touching them. It may be a hug or only a handshake, but this contact is a potential source of picking up a cold virus. An easy way to be rid of the virus that you just picked up is to wash your hands with soap and water. This is the best way to kill any virus or bad germs. If water and a sink are not available, a good second choice is “hand sanitizer”. This is very convenient. These sanitizers kill most of the viruses that cause the common cold. This protocol of cleansing the hands should be practiced anytime that you are in contact with another person.
Staying home from work is also important. Many of us hate to skip work for just a cold. However, if you stay away for 1-2 days when you are most contagious, (lots of coughing and sneezing) you can’t pass the infection on to others in the workplace.
Another stage of prevention, is when you are around someone who you know already has a cold. This most commonly happens when a child comes home with a cold. In addition to the above mentioned techniques, a few more types of hygiene should be employed.
As before, frequent hand washing by all in the household is a must. In addition, the sick person must be fastidious with his/her nasal hygiene. The patient should cover his/her mouth and nose whenever there is a cough or sneeze. He/she should use disposable tissues to cough into and to blow his nose. Most importantly he/she should dispose of each tissue after it is used one time. This prevents another person from touching contaminated trash and transmitting the cold virus to himself or others.
Another must for the patient is that he/she cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
The treatment of an upper respiratory infection (cold) should be directed at relief of each symptom. If the patient has a sore throat, it can be soothed by a throat lozenge. Any OTC lozenge will do. Look for one with menthol or eucalyptus oil. If there are muscle aches or fever these can be treated with acetaminophen (Tylenol and others) or ibuprofen (Motrin and others). Avoid the use of aspirin. There is a risk of a rare complication (Reye’s Syndrome) with the use of aspirin in a viral infection. This risk is believed to be less with the use of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Probably the most common symptom in a cold is stuffy, runny nose. the best treatment for this is an OTC decongestant nasal spray (Afrin and others).
When To See the Doctor
This is probably the question that I most frequently hear. The time to be seen is when there is one or more “Red Flag” signs or symptoms.
- Temp of 102 or higher
- Severe face pain.
- Duration of symptoms for 2 weeks or longer.
- Trouble breathing
The above signs and symptoms increase the likelihood that there is something else going on besides the common cold. In that case the patient should be seen and examined by a professional.
In summary, try your best to prevent the cold by good hygiene, including frequent hand washing.
If you do come down with a cold, be careful not to spread it to others in the household or workplace. Use the symptom based treatments described to make yourself more comfortable. If any of the “Red Flags” develop go in to be seen by a professional.
Article Written By Dr. Michael Huff
Dr. Huff is a third generation family practitioner. He practices family medicine in Oxnard where he was born and raised. He has been in practice for over 25 years. His special interests are pediatrics, gynecology and sports medicine.