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Cold and Flu: Basics, Care and Prevention

Category: Patient Stories
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Dr. Andrew Thompson, St. Luke's infectious disease specialist, and his sonsPublished in Moms & Dads Today magazine, November/December 2015


Every year, seemingly without fail, it begins. A sniff. A sneeze. A cough.

A cold.

For parents, sending young kids back to daycare or school seems like a virtual guarantee that they’ll be coming home with the cold du jour, with symptoms that can last for days or even weeks. Yet, according to Dr. Andrew Thompson, who is an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s, while a kid who is dealing with a cold can feel rather crummy, “generally speaking, these viral illnesses are usually mild, and are best treated with whatever home-based remedy you subscribe to.”

“So many illnesses that we have are viral. Usually, they are nuisance-types of infections. Sometimes these can get serious, but usually not,” he said. “Viruses usually have a pattern: day one, this happens; day two, it’s a rash; etc. If it follows a pattern, it is generally a virus. If there is a ‘bug going around,’ it is rarely bacterial and no antibiotic is needed.”

Kicking things up a notch

There is another, more-serious cousin to the cold that can instill a sense of dread in parents and health care providers alike: the flu. “The flu is a whole different level of discomfort,” said Dr. Thompson. And while colds and the flu share some symptoms, the flu comes with a fever that is brought on as your body works to fight the infection. “With the flu, fever is almost always present,” said Dr. Thompson. “It typically comes on very suddenly, and is above 101°F. The flu is a respiratory illness, and usually produces a dry, non-productive cough.”

While there is no way to inoculate against the common cold, a flu shot is a great way to avoid the flu or limit its effects. Said Dr. Thompson, “The flu evolves every few years as the H and the N parts of the virus mutate. A seasonal epidemic has synced up to a human calendar, but no one knows why. A good theory is that there are more people congregating indoors in the winter, and that may contribute to the flu’s spread.”

Every March, epidemiologists study emerging flus and predict what strain is likely to hit America, and they develop vaccines. “I recommend everyone get a flu shot. Contrary to some myths, you cannot get the flu from a flu shot,” said Dr. Thompson. “In addition to helping you avoid the flu, the flu shot plays a huge role in limiting the spread of the virus through the community.”

Built to travel

For Dr. Thompson, viruses demand a grudging level of respect. “Viruses are built to travel. They are perfectly designed to move rapidly from person to person. For example, when someone with a cold or the flu lets loose an uncovered cough, the virus travels well in tiny droplets of secretions and can easily infect a nearby person as they inhale.”

In order to prevent the spread of these efficient travelers, it is important to be vigilant in covering your coughs and washing your hands. “Our kids have been taught to cough into their elbows, rather than into their hands, and as adults, we need to do the same thing,” said Dr. Thompson. “Additionally, wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer periodically throughout the day. These are two simple steps we can take to help minimize the impact of these viruses on society.”

The care and feeding of colds and the flu

“I’m a parent too, and I know how hard it is to watch your kids get sick,” said Dr. Thompson. “With colds and the flu, let it run its course. Try to make your kids comfortable, have them lay low, and treat with Tylenol. Behavior is important—if they are sick but in generally good spirits, it is less alarming than if they are feeling really lethargic. The big thing to monitor is their breathing—if your child seems like they are having a hard time breathing, seek medical help immediately.”

For Dr. Thompson, the relationship between care provider and patient is a vital component of treating colds and the flu. “If you are concerned about your child’s health, call your provider and describe their symptoms. They’ll be able to help you determine the best way to help your children get through it. Use caution when requesting an antibiotic. Most often, their recommendation is going to involve making sure they’re comfortable, and keeping them home while they’re feeling bad.”

Prescription for dealing with colds and the flu

According to Dr.Thompson, here are the top five things you should do to help deal with colds and the flu.

1. “Wash your hands. Hand sanitizer is a great, effective substitute. And stop shaking hands, as a handshake is a really effective way to transmit a virus.”

2. “Cover your coughs. Cough into your elbow like kids are taught.”

3. “Get a flu shot. It’s going to reduce your chance of missing work or school, and reduce the risk of the flu spreading.”

4. “Stay out of group settings until fever is gone for 24 hours.”

5. “Manage your illness. Stay home, be responsible. Do it for the public good.”