During autumn and winter, many people suffer from coughs, colds and sore throats because many respiratory tract infections are easily spread as people crowd together indoors during this time.
Most respiratory tract infections are mild viral infections; however, some are more severe and can develop into serious illnesses. The following information describes the more common types of infections.
What is the common cold?
The common cold is a highly infectious upper respiratory tract (nose, throat and chest) infection, caused by over 100 different viruses. The common cold is not influenza. The common cold can be spread by droplets from the mouth and nose of infected people during sneezing and coughing. More commonly, it is spread by touch; infected particles are picked up by fingers that then inoculate the virus into any of the mucous membranes, such as touching the corner of the eye or nose-picking. The common cold takes anywhere from one to three days to develop after being exposed to infection.
What are symptoms of the common cold?
- Blocked and runny nose (watery for the first day, then turns thicker and greenish-yellow in colour), stuffy feeling in the head
- Slight cough and sore throat
- Headache, and general aches and pains
- The common cold may lead to other infections such as sinusitis, middle ear infection, bronchitis, or pneumonia
How do you treat the common cold?
There is no cure for the common cold but treatment helps to reduce the symptoms. A blocked or runny nose may be treated with a decongestant. Decongestants are also used to clear out blocked sinuses. A headache and general aches and pains may be treated with an analgesic (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen). Itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose can all be treated with antihistamines.
Typically, cough symptoms be described as either dry, hacky coughs, or congested, wet coughs. Over-the-counter cough medications are made to treat either dry coughs, and are called cough suppressants, congested coughs, and are called expectorants, or sometimes cough suppressants and expectorants in combination.
Supplements containing vitamin C, zinc and, the herb Echinacea are also gaining popularity as additional remedies. Despite this, some authorities believe further research is needed to determine their effectiveness. These therapies will be discussed in more detail in future particles.
Many of the over-the-counter medications used to treat the common cold can interact with prescription medications or intensify certain medical conditions. It is always best to check with your Sobeys Pharmacist prior to selecting any medications to treat a cold.
What can I expect from treating my cold?
Most symptoms will last for no longer than ten days, although a mild cough may last for two weeks.
Is the flu (influenza) the same as a cold?
Influenza is a severe respiratory tract infection caused by the influenza virus. This virus comes in a wide range of types. Therefore, a person may be infected with another type of influenza virus, even after becoming immune to a different strand of the virus.
The influenza virus is usually more prevalent in winter and spring, and usually occurs in epidemics. Influenza is very contagious, being spread by droplets from the mouth and nose of infected people during sneezing and coughing. It takes anywhere from one to three days to develop after exposure to infection. Influenza can be fatal in people who have weakened immune systems (such as infants and young children), people with chronic illnesses (such as asthma and heart disease), people on chemotherapy, and the elderly.
What are symptoms of the flu?
- Sudden onset of a high fever, chills, and shivering
- Dry cough, runny and blocked nose, and sore throat
- Headache, severe muscle and joint pains
- Extreme tiredness, difficulty getting out of bed
- In some cases, symptoms may also include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Influenza can lead to a secondary chest infection, such as bronchitis, or viral pneumonia. Seek immediate medical attention if symptoms seem to get worse or if a heavy cough with phlegm develops
How do you treat the flu?
People with the flu need plenty of rest, should drink plenty of fluids, and should stay away from work or school until the symptoms have definitely started to improve. A headache, aches and pains, and high fever may be treated with an analgesic (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen). A blocked or runny nose may be treated with a decongestant, while a cough may be treated with an appropriate cough suppressant or expectorant.
What can I expect from treatment?
Most people recover from influenza within two to seven days. Annual influenza vaccines are recommended in autumn for people over 65 years of age, people with chronic medical illnesses, people who are immunocompromised, and health professionals who are in direct contact with persons likely to be infected with the influenza.
What is bronchitis?
Bronchitis is the inflammation of the major airways that lead from the lungs, narrowing the air passageways. Bronchitis can be acute (short lasting) or chronic (long lasting).
Acute bronchitis is usually caused by a viral infection, although it can be caused by a bacterial infection, and lasts for about a week.
Chronic bronchitis (also called 'chronic obstructive pulmonary disease' or COPD) is the diagnosis when the cough and phlegm have been present for at least three months. Factors which cause COPD are smoking, air pollution, airway infection, emphysema (permanent swelling and damage to lung tissue), and alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency. The condition primarily occurs in people over the age of 50 years.
What are the symptoms of bronchitis?
- Heavy and rattling cough, wheezing and phlegm (clear, yellow, or green)
- Sore throat
- Slight fever (if caused by a bacterial infection)
How do you treat bronchitis?
Treatment is dependent on the severity of the symptoms and whether the condition is due to a viral or bacterial infection. Antibiotics are often prescribed, although not if the cause is a viral infection. Sometimes it is very difficult to decide what is causing the bronchitis.
Antibiotics usually provide very little benefit for bronchitis. A mild analgesic (such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen) may be recommended for pain and fever.
Decongestants and "drying" treatments used for a blocked nose, and cough medicine for a cough, may not be very effective for this condition.
Sometimes, a bronchodilator or corticosteroid "puffer" or "inhaler" will be prescribed to treat the inflammation of the airways. This may be very effective.
What can I expect from treatment?
Acute bronchitis generally improves in a week or two. Chronic bronchitis often recurs due to permanently damaged respiratory tissue. Exercise and drug treatment can improve breathing.
Is bronchitis different from pneumonia?
Pneumonia is the infection of one or both lungs, and is a very serious condition. It can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, with the most common cause being the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia. The disease often occurs after a respiratory viral infection, such as influenza. There are some other organisms that can cause a slightly milder (but longer lasting) version of pneumonia such as Legionella, Mycoplasma and Chlamydia.
The bacteria are spread person to person by the inhalation of small droplets from coughs and sneezes. Pneumonia can occur at any age and is more likely in people that have recently had a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, smoke, are alcoholic, suffer chronic obstructive airways diseases (such as asthma and bronchitis) or have a poor immune system, such as with AIDS, diabetes and organ transplant. In about 10% of patients, pneumonia can be fatal. Infants under 1 year and those over 60 years of age are at a higher risk.
What are the symptoms of pneumonia?
- Breathing troubles (crackles, wheezing, rapid and shallow breaths, shortness of breath, chest pains)
- Cough and rust streaked or red phlegm
- Chills and fever
- Headache and muscle aches and pains
- Nausea and vomiting
How do I treat pneumonia?
For mild cases of pneumonia, the patient will be treated at home with rest and an oral antibiotic. However, for moderate to severe cases, the patient may need to go to hospital to have access to breathing support (air given using a face mask) and given antibiotics directly into the blood system (intravenously).
What can I expect from treatment?
With treatment, the condition usually clears after 7 to 14 days.