Colds and Flu

While these illnesses may be the most common of all, they are far more complex than most people realize. The flu, in particular, is also more dangerous than most of us are aware.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?Fotolia 89832333 XS

Both influenza and the common cold are viral respiratory illnesses that often share a number of symptoms. The main difference is severity. Colds tend creep up on us, while flus can often come on pretty suddenly. Colds involve mainly respiratory symptoms and some fatigue, but fevers are fairly rare in adult patients. Flus just about always involve a fever.

Other symptoms may differ in key ways. For example, coughs from flus tend to be dry, while coughs from colds are often anything but. Nausea can be involved. (Respiratory flus, however, should not be confused with so-called stomach flus, which are actually not caused by influenza viruses.) In most cases, adults don’t develop fevers with a cold, though temperatures may or may not be elevated to some degree. It’s common, however, to feel rundown and tired for the first few days even without a fever

In themselves, colds are typically fairly minor illnesses that go away on their own within a week or two. Cases of flu, however, should be taken more seriously. While most cases resolve themselves in a week or two, some 36,000 Americans die each year after getting the flu, though most are killed by complications such as pneumonia. For the very young, the elderly, and for people with weakened immune systems, more attention needs to be paid to prevent an ordinary flu from escalating. Don’t worry, but do take the flu seriously and watch for signs of the illness becoming something more than a temporary time-out.

Should I see an urgent care doctor for flu, or even a cold?

Colds. It’s not necessary to see a doctor unless symptoms persist or become much stronger than usual. Watch out for fevers over 101 or so and long-lived fevers that last for several days or which appear to get better and then return. Also be on the lookout for particularly bad symptoms, especially difficulty breathing, which calls for emergency treatment. Also bad headaches or unusually painful sore throats that make it hard to swallow call for speedy attention. In infants under 12 weeks, fevers over 100 call for rapid attention.

Flu.Again, illnesses or very bad symptoms call for a visit with a doctor. If symptoms like fatigue and lack of energy persist beyond a week, it’s definitely time for a visit.

What about Tamiflu?

There is one good reason for seeing a doctor quickly while coming down with an ordinary flu, and that is to get a Tamiflu prescription. Taking Tamiflu within 48 hours of onset can very often reduce the length of flu. Tamiflu can also be taken preventatively, so people living with a flu sufferer may also want to consider taking it. The key here, of course, is to see a doctor very quickly enough to make a difference.

What’s the best way to take care of a cold or flu?

Viruses do not respond to antibiotics or any drugs other than Tamiflu. So, the best treatment is simply to rest as much as possible, consume plenty of fluids, and avoid infecting others. With fevers, it’s best to avoid others until you’re fever has been gone for about a day. With standard colds (which usually don’t cause fevers in adults) it’s also considerate to avoid others. Stay home from work and rest, if possible, at least the first day or two. Working at home may also be a good option in cases of a mild cold you don't want to spread.

Over-the-counter medications to help with symptoms are often a good idea, especially as the worst symptoms subside and we start to resume our normal routine. It’s especially helpful to try and control or prevent strong, hacking coughs. Such medications as Robitussin DM (a cough syrup with an expectorant to make coughs more productive) can be extremely helpful.

What about mom’s chicken soup?

It never hurts and it might very well help, and that also may apply to other warm liquids. Hot fluids are not only comforting, but can help a great deal with congestion. Fluids that contain either heat-inducing spices or sauces containing chili, such as a spicy soup or broth, or ginger teas and sodas can also be especially good for dislodging mucus. And, yes, many believe chicken soup can be especially helpful and there’s even some data showing that it seems to help with inflammation related to colds and flu. Since, as far as we know, no one has tested to see if beef, fish, and vegetable broths have similar properties, we can’t be sure if it’s really about having a nice, healthy and hopefully vegetable laden soup or if there’s some special properties of chicken derived broth. However, if you’re one of those who swears by “Jewish penicillin,” during a cold or flu is as good a time as any to indulge in it,

When is it a good idea to go to an emergency room?

With ordinary flus, visiting the emergency room is a bad idea. You’re taking time and space away from patients with actual emergencies, potentially exposing yourself to other illnesses, and spending a lot of time and, depending on your insurance coverage, as much as $2,000 or more for a single visit. Standard urgent care is usually the best response if you want treatment.

There are, however, certain symptoms that indicate care is needed very quickly. In these cases, you want to seek medical assistance as quickly as possible, whether it’s at an emergency room or an expedited doctor visit through some type of urgent care, such as a house call doctor. In adults, these symptoms include difficulty breathing, sudden and extreme dizziness, confusion, pains in the chest or stomach, and continual or extremely intense vomiting.

In children, changes in skin tone (bluish),rapid or difficult breathing, fever with a rash, inability to consume enough fluids, nonresponsive behavior (not waking up) or a young child who refuses to be comforted or is inconsolable require emergency care.

Also be on the lookout for very high fevers and seek care quickly if it is over 103 (lower temperatures may also be cause for concern in small children, elderly patients, and perhaps for people whose body temperature is generally lower than average).

Does being exposed to cold cause colds?

The answer is no, and maybe. Since a cold is simply a virus, clearly there’s more to getting a cold than going outside without a jacket. However, there is evidence that being uncomfortably cold for long periods could lower immunity and make people more vulnerable to a virus. It also appears that cold viruses may reproduce better in cooler weather, which could explain why these illnesses tend to spread more during the colder months.

How about supplements and colds?

Vitamin C was long believed to have some kind of power to either ward off or treat colds, but the evidence supporting it is scant. Echinacea is a more recent supplement promoted for anti-cold properties that shows a little more promise. The evidence is pretty mixed, but it’s possible it can help if it’s started in the early stages of a cold and continued for some time afterward. Similarly, some studies have shown zinc lozenges or syrups can shorten colds by a day or so, and many are convinced they lessen cold symptoms.

However, both echinacea and zinc have potential interactions and side effects. In particular, nasal sprays containing zinc have been linked to a loss of smell in rare cases. As for zinc lozenges and (much less expensive) zinc supplements, they are probably safe in amounts of less than 40 milligrams a day on an occasional basis. Also, there are some interactions with antibiotics. Ask your doctor if you are taking an antibiotic or considering using zinc on an ongoing basis. Echinacea can increase the impact of caffeine, leading to potential side effects; it also may interact with a number of medications, so it’s best to check with your physician before taking if you have a regular prescription you’re not sure about.

What’s the best way to prevent colds and flu?

That’s easy, standard good hygiene and health habits, especially regular hand washing (colds and flu are frequently spread through handshakes), getting enough sleep and eating a well-balanced healthy diet to keep your immune system strong enough to ward off the bugs that you will inevitably breathe in.

I think it would be a good idea for me to see an urgent care doctor, but I’d like an alternative to standard crowded facilities?

In that case, a house call doctor is probably the best answer. To get started with Dr. Michael Farzam and the House Call Doctor Los Angeles team, call us at the phone number above. You can also reach out to us via email through our contact page. By the way, a visit from House Call Doctor Los Angeles is, in many cases, significantly less expensive than a visit to an emergency room.