Cold or flu?

By Marcia Patrick

and Dr. Fadi Aljabi

For The Courier-Herald

You are surrounded by people with runny noses, coughs and sore throats. And now your kids are showing signs of being sick. But what do they have and should you be worried?

There are a number of viruses out there that can cause cold-like or influenza-like symptoms. They all are spread by respiratory secretions – people coughing or sneezing at each other and from touching surfaces where the viruses are hanging out. We touch surfaces containing one of the viruses and then touch our own eyes, nose and perhaps mouth, directly infecting our mucous membranes with the virus. Having people cough into their sleeves helps keep hands clean and prevents spreading the virus to doorknobs, light switches, keyboards, counter tops, school desks and shared items.  Frequent hand hygiene – washing or using sanitizing gel – and sanitizing shared surfaces helps as well.

What are the symptoms of flu?

Both seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus have similar symptoms, which include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people who have been infected with the H1N1 virus have also reported diarrhea and vomiting.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

Colds, in general, are less severe than the flu. Symptoms include runny or stuffy nose.

Another respiratory illness

Another virus that appears in winter is respiratory syncytial virus. RSV causes infection of the lungs and breathing passages. In adults, it may only produce symptoms of a common cold, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, mild headache, cough, fever, and a general ill feeling. But RSV infections can lead to other more serious illnesses in premature babies and kids with diseases that affect the lungs, heart, or immune system. Previously healthy children also may become seriously ill with RSV.

Babies with RSV may have no energy, act fussy or cranky and be less hungry than usual. Some children may have more serious symptoms such as wheezing. Call your doctor if your child is wheezing or having trouble breathing.

Almost all kids are infected with RSV at least once by the time they are 2 years old. Fortunately, most cases of RSV are mild and require no specific treatment. Antibiotics aren’t prescribed because RSV is a virus and antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Medication may sometimes be given to help open airways.

At home, make a child with an RSV infection as comfortable as possible, allow time for recovery and provide plenty of fluids.

Make your kids comfortable

To help your child breathe easier, use a cool-mist vaporizer during the winter months to keep the air moist; winter air can dry out airways and make the mucus stickier. Avoid hot-water and steam humidifiers, which can be hazardous and can cause scalding. If you use a cool-mist humidifier, clean it daily with household bleach to discourage mold.

Treat fever using a nonaspirin fever medicine such as acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used in children unless specifically prescribed by a medical provider.

When to call your provider

Call your provider immediately if your child has any of these symptoms:

• high fever with ill appearance

• thick nasal discharge that is yellow, green, or gray

• worsening cough or cough that produces yellow, green, or gray mucus

• difficulty feeding or fewer wet diapers than usual

• fast breathing or trouble breathing

• severe or persistent vomiting

• not waking up or not interacting

• being so irritable that the child does not want to be held

Call also if you think your child might be dehydrated or is having difficulty breathing.

In infants, besides the symptoms already mentioned, call your provider if your baby is unusually irritable or inactive, has dry diapers for a long period of time or refuses to breastfeed or bottle-feed.

Call 911 if the child is: making a grunting noise; having a purplish or slight gray color in the face, hands and feet; unable to speak, cry or make sounds; severe sucking in of the skin around the ribs or the base of the neck when breathing; not breathing for more than 15 seconds.

How to prevent both

colds and the flu

Because both viruses can be easily spread through contact with people or surfaces that are contaminated, frequent hand washing can go a long way toward prevention. Wash your hands after having any contact with someone who has any cold symptoms. And keep your school-age child with a cold away from younger siblings – particularly infants – until the symptoms pass. Alcohol hand sanitizers can also be used and are very effective at killing germs on clean hands. The product must contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective.

If you are sick, expect to be ill for at least a week. Unless medical care is necessary, you and your kids should stay home and minimize contact with others, including avoiding travel and not going to work or school until you have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.

If you leave the house to seek medical care, wear a facemask and cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your covered elbow. With influenza, people may be contagious from one day before they develop symptoms to up to seven days after they get sick. Children, especially younger children, might potentially be contagious for longer periods. 

For more information on this topic, visit MultiCare Health System’s Web site at at 11 a.m. on Jan. 26 to participate in a live chat with a health care provider.

Marcia Patrick is Director of Infection Prevention and Control for MultiCare Health System.

Dr. Fadi Aljabi is a Hospitalist with Mary Bridge Pediatric Care at Good Samaritan Hospital.

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