Is it a cold or the flu?
In a certain sense, it doesn't matter whether you've got a cold or the flu – either way, your body's telling you that it needs a break to heal, and it's best to stay home as much as possible to avoid spreading the virus to others. But the flu is definitely a more serious illness, especially in children and the elderly, and warrants special care and treatment.
Generally, colds start with a runny nose, nasal congestion, mild cough and dry, scratchy throat, says Denise C. Marion, RN, a nurse practitioner at South-East Ottawa Centre for a Healthy Community. Most of the time, the symptoms are a nuisance but not incapacitating. Flu, on the other hand, comes on suddenly and "boom – it leaves you feeling wiped," says Marion. Along with extreme fatigue come chills and fever, aches and pains and headache.
Although it's not always possible to tell colds and the flu apart, says Marion, the strongest signs it's the flu are the sudden onset, muscle aches and fatigue, while symptoms more in line with colds include sneezing and nasal congestion.
Cold and flu treatment
Only your immune system can cure a cold or flu, so treatment options should focus on relieving symptoms and strengthening your body's defenses. "I think the most important thing is resting so that your body can fight off whatever it is that's starting to take hold," says Blossom Bitting, ND, a naturopathic doctor at Sage Health Centre in Moncton, N.B. And the sooner you slow down, the better. "If you catch it early enough, your chances of getting rid of it faster are better," she says.
Bitting and Marion agree that the most important component of cold or flu treatment is to slow down and take care of yourself, not to just mask the symptoms with drugs and maintain your normal pace of life. They recommend the following:
• Get plenty of rest – listen to your body, even if it wants to sleep all day
• Stay home from work or school whenever possible, both for your own health and to avoid infecting others
• Drink plenty of fluids such as water, tea or watery soups; this "helps to keep your chest and nasal secretions loose," says Marion
• Eat healthy whole foods with lots of fruits and vegetables; avoid excess sugars and fats, caffeine and alcohol
• Try supplementing with vitamin C and echinacea; it's a hard thing to prove definitively, but studies have shown them to have a positive effect
• Increase humidity levels
• Avoid cigarette smoke
Page 1 of 3 – Fevers aren't always cause for alarm. Find out who might benefit from having a slight fever on page 2.
Bitting adds that echinacea extracts are more effective than pills, as they're in a more pure form. She also suggests visiting a naturopath for additional supplements – including homeopathic remedies and Chinese herbal formulas – that can be tailored to your specific symptoms. Marion notes that one study suggests that "daily consumption of North American ginseng extract may reduce the severity and duration of colds, if taken over winter months."
As for over-the-counter cold medications, they have their place – just don't overdo it. "I don't advocate taking remedies that are just designed to get rid of symptoms," says Bitting, especially since masking the symptoms often encourages people to push too hard when they should be resting and recuperating. However, she adds, "if you have to take something to help you sleep, do so."
Marion suggests cough syrups with dextromethorphan (DM) to suppress night coughs, if they're interfering with sleep, but notes that "cough is a protective mechanism trying to rid the body of some irritant" – meaning don't overdo the cough syrup. Nasal decongestants can relieve a stuffy nose, she adds, but for adults and teens only – "they may not be beneficial in kids less than 12," she says – and make sure to avoid them if you have high blood pressure.
Plus, she says, "spray nasal decongestants should not be used for more than three to five days because rebound nasal congestion can occur." Painkillers can relieve fever, muscle aches and pains and headaches, but Marion cautions that you should be careful not to exceed recommended doses, as many OTC cough and cold medications also contain painkillers.
Fever: good or bad?
"A mild fever," says Bitting, "is an important part of recovery, especially in adults." It's a part of your body's immune response, helping fight off the infection faster, and isn't something to necessarily be concerned about in a healthy adult. Marion adds that if a mild fever is causing discomfort, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce it, but that "there is no compelling need to do that." High or persistent fevers, however, should be evaluated by a physician.
Page 2 of 3 – Does your cold or flu require a visit to the doctor's office? Marion shares seven symptoms that warrant a trip to see your doctor on page 3.Don't share your symptoms
Marion stresses the importance of trying not to spread your illness, not only by staying at home as much as possible but also by taking a few precautionary measures:
• Avoid hand contact with others, especially after coughing or blowing your nose
• Avoid touching your eyes and nose
• Wash your hands often
• Cough or sneeze into tissues (or your sleeved elbow), and throw tissues in the garbage
• Be especially careful to avoid vulnerable populations: the elderly, people living in a chronic care or long-term care facility, children and adults with chronic heart or lung conditions, cancer or immunodeficiency.
Do you need to go to the doctor?
There's no need to go to the doctor for help curing a cold or flu itself, says Bitting – your immune system will do all the work, and remember that antibiotics won't do anything for a virus. It's secondary infections and complications that can be problematic, especially in high-risk populations. When it comes to your kids, speak to your doctor about when to bring them in when they've got a cold or the flu. And for healthy adults, Marion suggests visiting your doctor if any of the following occur:
• Chest pain
• Difficulty breathing
• Purulent sputum (sputum containing pus)
• High or persistent fever: more than 38.5ºC for more than 24 hours
• Severe headache or neck pain
• Severe throat pain
Above all, your symptoms should be getting better – if after three to five days you feel like you're getting worse, there may be something wrong.
Lessen your risk of a repeat
"Prevention of flu is the key," says Marion. "When you have recovered from your bout of flu, vow to yourself that next fall you will get the flu vaccine." If enough people get immunized each year, she adds, unvaccinated people are less likely to get sick as well, as there will be less infected people to come in contact with.
When it comes to colds, "at present there is no magic bullet," Marion says. She stresses good hand-washing and avoiding close contact with infected people as important, as well as a healthy lifestyle at all times. "Getting enough sleep each night, eating nutritiously, getting regular exercise and having healthy emotional relationships all go a long way to keeping one's immune system healthy."
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