Winter is the Season for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections and Influenza

It’s the season for winter viral upper respiratory tract system infections. It is also influenza and influenza- like illness season.

Winter brings crowds of people indoors together and holiday travel places crowds together in indoor areas as well. These viral illnesses are transmissible by hand to mouth transmission and airborne particle transmission with coughing. The viral particles can live with minimal water on surfaces for long enough periods of time to infect patients who unknowingly touch a foreign surface and bring their hands up to their mouths. Hand washing frequently is an essential part of preventing the transmission of these diseases. Common courtesy such as covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough and not coming in close contact with others when ill is essential.

Research has shown that consuming an extra 500 mg a day of Vitamin C can prevent colds and reduce the intensity of a cold if you catch one. You must take the Vitamin C all the time and in advance of exposure. Waiting until you have symptoms has no positive effect. Viral upper respiratory tract infections usually include fatigue, runny nose (coryza), sore throat (less than 90 % of adult sore throats are not a strep throat).

If you have been around a sick child age 2-7 who has a fever, swollen neck glands and an exudative sore throat your chances of having a strep throat are increased. Fever is usually low grade, less than 101, and short lived. Very often patients develop viral inflammation of the conjunctiva or conjunctivitis. While this is very contagious to others, it is self-limited and rarely requires intervention or treatment.

Caring for a cold involves listening to your body and practicing common sense solutions. Rest if tired. Don’t go to the gym and workout if you feel ill. If you insist on going, warm up slowly and thoroughly and, if you do not feel well, stop the workout.

Sore throat can be treated with lozenges. Warm fluids including tea and honey (honey is antimicrobial and anti-viral), chicken soup, saline nasal spray for congestion and acetaminophen for aches and pains or fever are mainstays of treatment. Over the counter cough medications like guaifenisin help.

Some of the viruses affect your gastrointestinal tract causing cramps and diarrhea. Nausea and vomiting are sometimes present as well. The key is to put your bowel to rest, stay hydrated and avoid contaminating or infecting others. Clear liquids, ice chips, shaved ices, Italian ices or juice pops will keep you hydrated. A whiff of an alcohol swab will relieve the nausea as well. If you are having trouble keeping food or fluids down call your doctor. If you are taking prescription medications, call your doctor and see which ones, if any, you can take a drug holiday from until you are better.

Influenza is more severe. It is almost always accompanied by fever and aches and pains. Prevention involves taking a seasonal flu shot. Flu shots are effective in keeping individuals out of the hospital from complications of influenza. They are not perfect but far better than no prevention. If you run a fever of 100.8 or higher, and ache all over, call your physician. An influenza nasal swab can confirm influenza A and B 70 % of the time.

The new molecular test which can provide results in under an hour is far more accurate but not available at most urgent care or walk in centers or physician offices. Immediate treatment with Osetamivir (Tamiflu) and the newer Peramivir are effective at reducing the duration and intensity of the infection if started early. Hydration with clear fluids, rest, acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories for fever in adults 101 or greater and rest is the mainstay of treatment. Prolonged fever or respiratory distress requires immediate medical attention. Call your doctor immediately.

I get asked frequently for a way to speed up the healing. “My children are coming down to visit. We have a cruise planned. I am flying in 48 hours on business.”  I am certainly sympathetic but these illnesses need to run their course. They are not interested in our personal or professional schedule and everyone you come in contact with is a potential new victim. If you are congested in the nose or throat, and or sinuses, then travelling by plane is putting you at risk of severe pain and damage to your ear drum. See your doctor first. Patients and pilots with nasal congestion are advised not to fly for seven to ten days for just this reason.

If you have multiple chronic illnesses including heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease and you run a fever or feel miserable then call your doctor and make arrangements to be seen. It will not necessarily speed up the healing but it will identify who actually requires antibiotics and additional follow up and tests and who can let nature take its course.

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