As summer turns to fall, the nights get cooler, the leaves start to change, we start getting out our cozy sweaters and...BAM! cold and flu season starts ramping up. What can start out as a mildly irritating illness can turn down right miserable. So, how do you know if this is something that needs a doctor's visit vs a little TLC? Rest, fluids and over the counter medication for symptom relief vs a prescription or antibiotic? Read on for some clarification on some common misconceptions and TIPS on how to stay well.
Green snot means you need an antibiotic.
Any time you have increased mucous production, especially if it sits around in your sinuses for awhile, it will turn from its usual clear to yellow or green. This does not indicate a bacteria is necessarily the cause.
I feel miserable. I must have the flu.
"The flu" is a specific infection caused by the influenza virus (typically A or B). The flu changes some each year, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, which is why a flu vaccine is recommended each year. If you have a cough and a runny nose, it's probably one of the many viruses that causes the common cold. If you have the above, PLUS, fever, muscle aches and feel like you've been hit by a bus...then you probably have the flu.
The "stomach flu" is a thing.
I grew up calling any vomiting or diarrhea illness "the stomach flu" too, but this is a tragic misnomer. If you have vomiting and diarrhea, you probably have some sort of food poisoning (bacterial cause) or viral gastroenteritis, but it's not any type of "flu".
Antibiotics can help any serious infection.
So, this one has a 2-part answer...
1. Antibiotics only kill bacteria, so anything caused by a virus will NOT be helped by an antibiotic. It may cause a rash or give you a yeast infection, but it won't cure your virus.
2. When antibiotics are used inappropriately (such as for a virus), we worsen antibiotic-resistant epidemic, which as it sounds, is BAD news. This creates "super bugs" that are harder to treat and often lands people in the hospital to get expensive, IV antibiotics to kill off these bacteria that were once susceptible to simple, inexpensive antibiotics.
When my cold goes to my chest, I always need an antibiotic.
Bronchitis can be very serious, causing chest tightness, productive cough and shortness of breath which may require prescription medication such as an inhaler or cough suppressant.
There is a very common misconception that bronchitis, or a "chest cold", requires an antibiotic, however, the vast majority of the time, bronchitis is a viral infection caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold.
A good history and careful physical exam can help determine if the bronchitis is caused by a virus or bacteria, but sometimes an X-ray or blood test is needed as well. If you are at high risk for infection (diabetic, immune deficiency, COPD or chronic bronchitis sufferers), an antibiotic may be given since they often don't present with typical symptoms and the risk of serious complication in this group is much higher.
Viral infections are not as serious as bacterial infections.
Viral infections, including those that cause the common cold and influenza (the flu) can make you super miserable with high fevers and muscle cramps that will make you want to curl up in bed and beg for spring to arrive. Even some types of meningitis (a scary infection of the spinal fluid surrounding your brain) are viral and can present very similarly to bacterial infections. Usually, a good history, physical exam and possibly blood tests can help distinguish between a viral and bacterial infection.
If your illness is determined to be viral, this just means that an antibiotic won't do any good, NOT that your symptoms aren't serious. Instead, we need to focus on treating the symptoms, supporting your body's own immune system (which may require a hospital stay if severe) and waiting for your body to fight off the virus.
If I don't need an antibiotic, there is nothing that will help me feel better.
There are lots of things that can help ease the symptoms that come along with the cold or flu. Ibuprofen or Tylenol can help ease muscle aches, sore throats, headache and fever. Saline nasal spray/rinse can help keep sinuses clear and that mucous moving along so it doesn't settle in and cause sinus infections (mostly adults) or ear infections (mostly kids). Humidifiers can help with congestion and nighttime cough. Vicks vapor rub on the chest, neck or feet can help with congestion and cough. Lemon and honey "tea" can soothe a sore throat.
You'll also find tons of over-the-counter medication promising to help with symptoms, but read the labels carefully, avoid over-dosing on medication when taking more than one combo medicine and avoid these entirely in kiddos under age 4 - they don't tend to work and have caused serious side effects in children. When in doubt, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
The cough from bronchitis only lasts a few days.
I really hate to say it, but the average cough for VIRAL bronchitis lasts up to 3 or 4 WEEKS! Boo. This is important to realize as most people assume that a cough that lasts this long MUST require an antibiotic. But as we've discussed above, unless you are having other worsening symptoms, you just have to keep on with the chicken noodle soup and ride it out.
I don't need a flu shot because I've never gotten the flu.
You've probably never been hit by a bus, but I'll bet you still look both ways before crossing the street. In fact, we feel so strongly that the flu vaccine is important that we offer the flu vaccine FREE for all members over 6 months of age of our clinic. I'll let the CDC answer the rest of the most common flu shot questions.
TIPS ON HOW TO SURVIVE COLD AND FLU SEASON
These may sound familiar to what your grandma used to say...
1. Get plenty of rest
2. Drink plenty of fluids - we're talking water, green tea, etc.
3. Wash your hands frequently
4. Cough/sneeze into your elbow - and teach your kiddos to do the same
5. Get plenty of vitamin C - think strawberries, orange juice, bell peppers or a supplement
6. Get your flu shot early - it takes 2 weeks for your immune system to ramp up
7. Relax, find time for yourself and de-stress - stress causes increased cortisol levels which weakens your immune system. We offer weekly meditation classes at clinic, check out our newsletter or call for details.
What other questions do YOU have about the cold and flu season? What's your best go-to treatment? Personally, I'm a big fan of chicken noodle soup, foot rubs and Vicks Vapor Rub smeared under my nose. Feel free to share your questions or comments below.
Wishing you a happy and healthy fall!
Kylie Vannaman MD is a Board Certified Family Medicine Doctor in Kansas City who believes that trusting relationships and quality conversations are essential to providing outstanding primary care to one and all. Sign up today!