Cold & Flu 101 – The Third Article in a Three Part Series

by Symptom Advice on January 30, 2012

A local Registered Nurse was nice enough and took a little time to give us a quick lesson in sickness, just in time for the flu & cold season.

This is the third article in a three part series called “Cold & Flu 101?:


This is the final installment for this season and now we address the topic of Colds and Flus as they affect Adults. Once again these articles are to disseminate information only and not as a means to treat or diagnose. If you have concerns or chronic medical problems with lung or heart issues or a decreased immune system with any cold/flu symptoms please check in with your doctor to make sure you’re on the right track.

The stats still say that flu season is still not “officially” upon us for adults (meaning that the number of diagnosed “flu” hasn’t reached 10% in the doctor’s office) however, I’m noticing a significant increase of patients with flu like symptoms. so hang on to your seats.

Very quickly let’s review the difference between a cold and a flu? It’s a great idea to get the flu shot, this years flu shot only contains three viruses (typically the shot only has 2-3 viruses every year in it). There are over 200 viruses that cause cause an array of symptoms ranging from a slight runny nose to a doctor appointment for a cough that wont go away or sinus infection to hospitalization related to complications (ie: pneumonia). Knowing the warning signs of a progressing problem are important.

Cold symptoms: this is a virus that causes runny nose, sore throat, cough, feverish/chills, yellow/green mucus. you usually feel icky but day 3 can be the worst day as your body is fighting off the virus and depositing it into your lungs and nose in the form of mucus. Usually after the 3rd day, symptoms don’t worsen too much and slowly go away over 1-2 weeks.

Flu symptoms: this is a virus and causes sudden onset of fever, headache, fatigue, sore throat, body aches, and the every famous yellow/green mucus. The difference is that you are down for the count on day one or sometimes day two. Usually you have a difficult time even getting out of bed because of the fatigue and body aches. These symptoms can last for 5 days or so and then start to level off and decline…but just in time for the nasal congestion and cough which can go on for 1-2 weeks.

Complications: If at anytime after day 5, you are feeling worse or fevering, call your doctor. Complications of a common cold or virus are usually Sinus Infections, Bronchitis and Pneumonia. We’ll review symptoms of each. Information for these descriptions is from the National Institute of Health website.

Sinus Infection: The nasal passage ways are tubes that run from your nostrils and around to your throat. off of these tubes are balloon/sac like structures called sinuses located above the eyebrows and to either side of the nose. we actually aren’t sure the function of these sacs but they get filled with mucus when we are sick. when they fill up bacteria can begin to grow. If the sinuses are not emptied quickly via blowing/steam/nasal sprays then the bacteria grow in numbers such that by 10-14 days after the beginning of your symptoms, voila…sinus infection. The time frame is an average, some people are sooner by a few days and other can be 3-5 weeks out. Symptoms of this are continuing yellow-green mucus past 7-10 days, pressure/pain in the forehead above the eyebrows, either side of the nose and even upper teeth pain as inflammation increases. you may have one of these areas affected, usually one side, or in some cases both. Some people will run a low grade fever of 99-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Treatment for this usually means antibiotics but tends to clear up quickly within a few days. very important to finish the whole run of medication to avoid a return of symptoms because not all the bacteria are killed.

Bronchitis: following a viral cold/flu that causes a cough you can develop inflammation in the main air passages to the lungs. People most at risk are the elderly, people with heart or lung disease (ie: Asthma) and smokers. Symptoms of Bronchitis can include chest discomfort with breathing or coughing, yellow-green mucus, fatigue, low grade fever (99-100 degrees Fahrenheit), shortness of breath and wheezing. Onset of bronchitis depends on your overall health but usually after the 7-10 day period since onset of the cold/flu and you’re getting worse not better. this diagnosis is usually done by physical exam where the doctor listens for changes in lung sounds. Treatment usually consists of a tailored recipe of the following: antibiotics, inhalers and possibly oral steroids. even with proper treatment the healing phase can take weeks for the coughing to go away but should be slowing decreasing and never worsening again. If symptoms return or worsen after the start of the treatment phase then a re-evaluation is necessary.

Pneumonia: this diagnosis can lead to hospitalization and be life threatening. If you feel that you fit into these symptoms and have been sick longer than the normal 7-10 day cold/flu period it it imperative that you seek medical attention. that being said I’ve actually seen people that have developed a pneumonia within the first 7 days of the illness so listen to your body and trust your instincts. Pneumonia can be viral or bacterial (more common) so it is important to get accurate treatment as their symptoms are mostly the same but only the bacterial version responds to antibiotics. after a viral infection the body tries to fight off the invader and for a myriad of reasons begins to lose the battle and bacteria begins to grow or the virus increases in numbers actually causing a build up of fluid in the lung (usually just one but can be both lungs) in response to the illness. Typical symptoms are cough, can be dry or producing yellow-green phlegm, fever (can range from 99-104 degrees Fahrenheit), chills, shortness of breath and one classic sign is sharp pain on the chest/side/back when breathing or coughing. Some experience trouble breathing laying down and find themselves propped up in bed or sleeping in a chair at night. again, seek medical attention for these symptoms. Coughing after successful treatment can continue for 6 weeks or more but there should be a decrease in symptoms slowly over this time period.

For a basic cold/flu where you are improving from day 7-10 double check with your doctor to make sure you’re taking the right decongestant/cough medicine and do the following: rest as much as you can, drink plenty of fluids and steam to keep the mucus thin and draining to prevent complications. Good luck for the cold/flu season.

To read the previous “Cold & Flu 101? articles, please click ON THIS LINK.

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