Winter watch-outs: Cold or something worse?

November 21, 2019

Did your parents warn that you could catch a cold this time of year by going out with a wet head? Or fall ill from not wearing a jacket in the chilly temps? Turns out, these are just old wives’ tales. Colds—or upper respiratory infections (URIs)—are viruses that spread through the air and target the nasal passages. Sometimes, URIs affect the sinuses or lungs, where bacteria can spread for a longer-lasting infection.

“Even though a sinus infection and bronchitis affect different body parts, they can exist together when someone has a bad respiratory infection,” explains Dr. David Harrison, medical director and VP of physician affairs for Teladoc.

So if you’re sick with a stuffy nose, cough, fatigue, and headache, feeling irritated in various areas of the body, how do you tell what type (or types) of illness you have? One of our U.S. board-certified physicians can review your history and symptoms to help guide you toward the best treatment. In the meantime, here’s a primer about how URIs wreak havoc this time of year—and what you can do about it.

Catching a cold

The common cold leads to about 75 to 100 million doctor visits annually,1 and millions more missed work and school days. Americans experience about 1 billion colds a year!2 That’s 1 billion bouts of runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, headache, and feelings of general ickiness. Kids are affected more than adults by the cold virus, which lasts a week to 10 days.

While we never want to see our children suffer—and hate struggling ourselves—it’s important to know that antibiotics can’t treat a viral infection for a faster recovery. There is no immediate “cure” for a cold, other than fluids, rest, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies for comfort. Be aware, though, that complications from a cold can arise.

The most important thing in preventing the spreading and catching of colds this winter is frequent hand-washing. “Cleaning hands with soap and warm water often for at least 20 seconds—especially before eating or touching your face—is the habit most helpful in preventing the spread of viruses,” Dr. Jason Tibbels, vice president of Teladoc Health, says, adding that cold sufferers should cough and sneeze into a tissue or their sleeve to further prevent the spread of germs.

Sizing up a sinus infection

When the membranes in the lining of your sinuses become inflamed, you could have a sinus infection. Since the condition often results from a cold due to all the extra mucus and irritation in the upper respiratory tract, many of the symptoms are the same: mild headache, stuffy nose, fatigue, and cough. With a sinus infection, swelling may bring feelings of pressure to the cheeks or forehead, and the mucus can flow back into the throat for postnasal drip.

Its most often viral, but bacteria can develop in the sinuses if they’re plugged up with mucus. “Viruses are far more likely to be the cause of sinus infections,” says Dr. Harrison. But it’s important to be on the lookout for symptoms that increase the probability of bacterial sinusitis, which usually require treatment with antibiotics:

  • Persistent symptoms for longer than 10 days, especially with “double worsening.” This means symptoms start to improve and then get worse a few days later.
  • A fever, especially a high one over 102 F.
  • Asymmetric pain (one side much worse than the other) in one or more sinus areas. These include under or above the eyes and above the bridge of the nose.

It can be difficult to tell a bacterial infection from a viral one in the sinuses because of overlapping symptoms, Dr. Harrison says, noting that a Teladoc physician can talk with you 24/7 about what might be causing the issue. If you have a severe or constant headache, neck pain or stiffness, extreme sleepiness, or a change in mental state, get help right away.

Otherwise for comfort, replenish those fluids by drinking plenty of water, breathing in steam, and using a humidifier. Drain sinuses regularly and try an oral decongestant or pain medication for relief. If pain persists or symptoms worsen, please reach out to us.

Breaking down bronchitis

If your infection travels down to the bronchial tubes in the lungs, you’ll notice a quickly developing cough. Swelling and inflammation there, known as acute bronchitis, or a chest cold, can also cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness, in addition to the other cold-like symptoms like fatigue, chills, sore throat, and mucus output.

Bronchitis may be pretty uncomfortable and the perceived lack of air can be alarming: Up to 90% of adults seek medical advice when having an episode.3 Also usually viral by cause, bronchitis typically resolves itself in three to 10 days, although the cough can linger longer. Bacteria can also come into play, so it’s important to get evaluated by a doctor.

We can help guide you through your symptoms to determine the best course of treatment. If your cough has persisted for longer than three months, you could have chronic bronchitis or something more serious.

As with a URI, rest, drink fluids, and treat your lungs kindly with plenty of moisture through a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer. Take long steamy showers, and calm your throat with lozenges, hot tea with honey, and an OTC pain medication.

Preparing for winter

Whether you’ve experienced a cold, sinus infection, bronchitis, or another infection altogether in the past, the time to prepare for this winter is now! Take care of yourself to boost that immunity: sleep at least seven hours a night, eat plenty of healthy meals with fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and practice stress management techniques.

Keep our U.S.-board certified physicians on hand as we delve deeper into sick season. Our doctors are experts at evaluating illnesses and determining the right course of treatment based on your symptoms and how long you’ve been having them. Request a visit to get checked quickly and easily from the comfort of home.

References

1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23259364
2https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/upper-respiratory-infection-uri-or-common-cold
3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2278319/

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