It’s October! It’s back to school time, and the beginning of cold and flu season. Colds and flu tend to be spread more this time of year in part because we all tend to be indoors more, and children are back in school so we are often in closer quarters. But what causes colds? How can we protect ourselves? Are there any good treatments?
Colds and bronchitis are typically caused by viruses. Cold viruses can cause a lot of different symptoms, including sore throat, runny nose and congestion, cough, sinus pressure, headache, ear pressure, and even fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and rash in some cases. They can make us feel miserable, but are usually not serious. Antibiotics are useless against viruses.
The average viral cold lasts for 7 to 10 days, but some symptoms (especially cough) can last for several weeks. Sore throats from colds usually resolve in the first few days. (Note: If you have a cough with your sore throat, it probably isn’t strep throat.)
Although most colds resolve on their own no matter what we do, occasionally bacteria can start to grow in the mucus in your respiratory tract and cause a secondary infection. Unlike viruses, which can cause symptoms all over your body, bacteria tend to hit only one area. Secondary infections following a cold include sinus infections (sinusitis), ear infections (otitis media), and pneumonia. Signs of a secondary bacterial infection include a prolonged illness (more than 10 days) or new symptoms such as earache, high fever, sinus pain, or loss of appetite several days into a cold. (Yellow or green nasal drainage is common during a cold, and does not necessarily indicate a sinus infection.)
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections like sinusitis or pneumonia, but are useless against viruses. Using antibiotics unnecessarily can cause problems. Antibiotics can cause side effects like yeast infections or diarrhea, or occasionally allergic reactions. In addition, when antibiotics are used frequently, bacteria can become resistant to them and they will no longer work. Unfortunately, antibiotic resistance is becoming more and more common, and there are now bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. Because of these risks, we try to prescribe antibiotics only when we feel they will be effective, such as for sinusitis or pneumonia. Please don’t pressure your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic if he or she feels it isn’t needed. Taking an antibiotic when you have a cold will not reliably prevent a bacterial infection, may give you side effects, and may increase the likelihood that your next infection will be resistant to that antibiotic.
There are several things you can do to prevent catching or spreading colds:
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer regularly throughout the day, especially if you touch or blow your nose, or before eating.
- Try to make sure you are getting enough sleep. People who get less than 7 hours of sleep daily are much more likely to catch colds.
- Try to eat a healthy diet, with several servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Better nutrition will improve your resistance to cold viruses.
- Cover coughs and sneezes by coughing into a tissue or into your sleeve.
There are some cold remedies that should be avoided by certain people:
- Avoid decongestants if you have high blood pressure. They can cause an unsafe rise in blood pressure.
- Avoid antihistamines if you have glaucoma or an enlarged prostate. They can increase eye pressure or make it difficult to urinate.
- Avoid cough suppressants if you are taking antidepressants, since they can cause a rare but serious interaction. Ask your healthcare provider if you aren’t sure.
Megan Borror, M.D.
PinnacleHealth Medical Group