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Is It a Cold? Flu? Or Something Else?

By Leslie Roste

This article is from the Winter 2012 issue of Body Sense magazine.

This winter, if you become ill, the first step is to find out what you have. The common cold, which can be caused by any of 200 or more different viruses, generally starts with a sore throat and that I-think-I-am-getting-sick feeling.

During those first days when you are trying to convince yourself you aren't sick enough to stay home from work, you are actually quite contagious. The first three days would be the best time to stay home. Colds generally peak quickly, and then get better each day, with final resolution taking about 7-10 days. In this time frame, you would likely have congestion, a cough, a headache, and maybe even a low-grade fever.

Although a cold may feel like a serious illness, unless you have a severely impaired immune system, you just need to be patient and treat the symptoms. Get lots of rest, plenty of fluids, and good nutrition. Over-the-counter remedies can be helpful in allowing you to get through the day and sleep at night, but always read the labels, especially if you have other health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or high blood pressure. A pharmacist can generally point you in the right direction.

The flu (influenza) is a much more serious illness. It affects 5-20 percent of Americans every year and hospitalizes more than 30,000. Flu symptoms come on quicker than a cold and are more severe. They commonly include:
- Body aches, particularly in joints and around the eyes.
- Dry cough.
- Fever (often high).
- Sore throat.
- Weakness.
Recognizing flu symptoms is important, because the few available antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu, are only effective when taken in the first 24 hours after symptoms begin. These medications will not cure the flu, but can reduce its intensity and get you back on your feet a few days sooner. If you are living with a chronic illness of any type, it is important to seek medical attention if you believe you have the flu.

Prevention is Key
Regardless of whether the threat is a simple cold or the flu, there are several things you can do to protect yourself from unnecessary downtime.

Proper Hand Washing
This simple act gets top billing because of its true effectiveness in preventing illness. The most important aspects of hand washing are the length of time (at least 30 seconds) and the amount of friction you use, not the water temperature. In fact, warm water is better than hot, as hot water dries the skin, leaving more microscopic openings on its surface. In cases where hand washing is not practical, keep hand sanitizer available. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also contribute to drying of the skin, so be diligent about moisturizing.

Immunizations
Have you had all your shots? The most underimmunized group in America is women aged 30-55. Check with your physician to make sure you are up-to-date on everything from influenza to tetanus.

Fluids and More Fluids
Staying well hydrated clearly benefits our skin, the largest organ of our immune system. The advice to stay adequately hydrated is even more important in the cold, dry months of winter.

Eat Your Vitamins
A balanced diet, which includes all food groups, gives your immune system the resources it needs when it faces a challenge like the flu.

Eight Hours of Sleep
With the demands of life, making time for eight hours of sleep every night often seems difficult. However, research continues to prove how vital this is to every part of our well-being. It affects everything from our ability to resist illness to managing weight.

Hands and Face
It is important to keep your hands away from your face--particularly the eyes, mouth, and nose, which are favorite points of entry for viruses. Start paying attention to how frequently you touch your face. Break the habit, and you could reduce your risk of colds and flu this season by more than 50 percent.

Proper Disinfection
When cleaning your home during cold and flu season, consider cleaning items you might not normally bother with, such as doorknobs and the telephone. When used properly, disinfectants are very effective, and a few extra minutes might mean the difference between a week in bed and a healthy winter.

Leslie Roste has degrees in nursing and microbiology and is employed by King Research in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She speaks to various industry groups throughout the country and also works with textbook manufacturers as an editor for infection control material. Contact her at lroste@king-research.com.




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