Your Cold and Flu Symptoms, Explained
The Symptom: Sneezing
What it means: Your body is expelling bacteria and other particles with a sudden, involuntary burst of air. Don’t suppress a sneeze, as your body is trying to evict the irritants.
When to worry: Almost never, but if sneezing interferes with your life or persists after other symptoms are gone, talk to your doctor to find out if an allergy might be the cause.
Home remedies: Using Kleenex Anti-Viral tissues helps prevent the spread of viruses. No tissue? Sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands. You’ll be less likely to pass germs along.
Over-the-counter remedies: Some antihistamines (the sedating varieties) can help cut down on the sneeze reflex. But most experts advise you to leave this fairly innocuous symptom untreated.
The Symptom: Chills and Fever
What it means: Chills are the way the body generates heat when it feels cold. They usually precede a fever, the body’s method for defending itself by raising its temperature to fight a virus.
When to worry: Call your doctor if your temperature rises above 39 degrees, if a fever persists for 72 hours without breaking, or if you also have shortness of breath or dizziness.
Home remedies: To stay hydrated, sip your favourite liquids. Sponging off with warm water may also give you relief.
Over-the-counter remedies: Paracetamol or ibuprofen can lower a fever that’s making you uncomfortable.
The Symptom: Sore Throat
What it means: Mucus is dripping into the back of your throat, causing irritation and inflammation.
When to worry: If you have severe difficulty swallowing or breathing, call your doctor to rule out a more serious illness, such as a bacterial infection.
Home remedies: Gargle with warm salt water. Soothe a scratchy throat with liquids, such as caffeine-free tea and broth, or cool down a fiery one with an ice pop.
Over-the-counter remedies: Paracetamol or ibuprofen will help decrease inflammation.
The Symptom: Runny Nose
What it means: Your body has stepped up mucus production to remove the cold or flu viruses from your nasal passages.
When to worry: If your health doesn’t improve after one week, you could have a bacterial sinus infection, which may require treatment with an antibiotic.
Home remedies: Drink fluids to thin mucus. Chicken soup may help reduce inflammation. Sniff gently into a tissue, as blowing hard can lead to sinus problems.
Over-the-counter remedies: Use a saline spray to help irrigate your nasal passages, or use an oral decongestant or an antihistamine.
The Symptom: Sinus Pressure
What it means: Mucus has congested the nasal passages and may be trapped in the sinuses because they are not draining properly.
When to worry: If you have a fever of more than 39 degrees, you may have a bacterial infection, which can be treated with antibiotics.
Home remedies: Keep your sinuses moist by using a humidifier, or stand over a sink filled with hot water.
Over-the-counter remedies: A decongestant spray can help ease congestion and swelling.
The Symptom: Cough
What it means: A reflex that keeps the throat clear, a cough is triggered when excessive mucus (or some other irritant) has irritated the nerve endings in the respiratory tract.
When to worry: If you’re short of breath and coughing up blood or discoloured mucus, you may have bronchitis, sinusitis, or pneumonia.
Home remedies: Soothe an irritated throat with hard boiled sweets, or drink warm fluids.
Over-the-counter remedies: Products with pseudoephedrine work but can make you sleepy. Non-drowsy versions with phenylephrine aren’t as effective. Ibuprofen may reduce throat inflammation.
The Symptom: Swollen Glands
What it means: Your lymph nodes are producing an army of infection-fighting cells to battle the invading virus.
When to worry: If your glands remain enlarged for several weeks after a cold or the flu is gone, that could be, in rare cases, a sign of a more serious illness, such as lymphoma.
Home remedies: There’s not much you can do to reduce swollen glands. They should return to normal within a few weeks.
Over-the-counter remedies: Other cold or flu symptoms will probably bother you more, but paracetamol or ibuprofen can ease any discomfort caused by the engorged glands.
The Symptom: Body Aches
What it means: More common with the flu, all over aches are a sign your body is releasing chemicals that help your white blood cells fight off infection.
When to worry: Only if the aches are incapacitating, which is rarely the case with a cold or the flu.
Home remedies: Get plenty of rest, and take warm baths to soothe your muscles―or try using a heating pad or a heated water bottle.
Over-the-counter remedies: Paracetamol or ibuprofen will relieve the pain.
What Makes You Vulnerable to Colds and Flus
Normally your body’s barriers, including your skin and the linings of your airways and gastrointestinal tract, keep invaders out. But low immunity, contact with a heavy germ load, high stress, and some surprising factors can increase your chances of getting sick.
Having fewer illnesses in childhood could affect your health as an adult. Paradoxically, people who were frequently sick with viral infections as children typically have greater immunity and are susceptible to fewer infections as adults. Antibodies last a lifetime.
Cold temperatures and low humidity, indoors and out, can irritate or damage your airways. Air pollution, indoor dust, and ash from fireplaces can also act as irritants, causing inflammation and making it easier for germs to enter your system.
Smoking can make you prone to bacterial and viral infections. Smoking damages the linings of the nose and throat, which not only offer barrier protection but also have a coating of fine filaments, called cilia, on the surface. That’s why smokers tend to have more frequent and worse colds than nonsmokers. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also lower your natural defences.
Stress, lack of sleep, and poor nourishment can also set you up for getting sick. Stress and fatigue can lower your resistance to infection and increase the intensity of illnesses you do get. But there may be a bit of a lag between a stressful event and when you become ill. When you’re in a period of maximal stress, you’re releasing a lot of adrenaline, which keeps you going. Once that stressful stimulus is over or removed, you crash.
If you’re under long-term stress, you’re especially susceptible to illness, because chronically elevated stress hormones can suppress immune function and lower the activity of germ-fighting white blood cells. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that severe chronic stress―from such things as conflicts with family or friends and unemployment―significantly increases a person’s risk of coming down with a cold.
How to Stay Healthy During Cold and Flu Season
Strengthen your body’s defences by eating well, drinking lots of water, exercising regularly, and staying away from people who appear sick. If you do get a bug, pamper yourself.
Eat antioxidant-rich foods, such as whole-grain cereals, walnuts, and artichokes, as well as foods packed with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. The antioxidants protect the body’s tissues against stress and inflammation and enhance immune function. Omega-3 fatty acids promote blood flow and the production of anti-inflammatory substances, which also boost immune function.
Take a brisk walk every day. Any kind of moderate daily exercise―such as cycling, swimming, or working out at the gym―can improve lung and immune function. Physical activity enhances the ability of T lymphocytes (white blood cells that attack virus and cancer cells) to ramp up the immune response, but don’t push yourself too hard. Some studies suggest that high-intensity exercise for two or more hours at a time increases stress hormones, which can lead to suppression of the immune system.
Stay three or more feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing. This will keep you outside the immediate spray of their germs. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. If you’re not near a sink during the day or you work in a high-germ environment, such as a school, carry an alcohol-based hand sanitiser with you.
Drink lots of water, don’t skimp on sleep, and get a flu shot. The tried-and-true advice still holds. Staying well hydrated keeps the tissues of the respiratory system moist and helps the immune system work properly. Sleep helps the body function at an optimum level. If you get seven to eight hours of rest a night, you’ll be less likely to become sick, and if you do catch something, you’ll recover faster. October through November is the best time to be immunised, even if you’re a healthy adult.
Finally, stay home from work when you first feel ill. It’s possible that work-related stress (not to mention commuting) could slow your recovery. Tell your boss that Garvan Lynch said so.
Author: Garvan James Lynch B.Sc.(Gen) N.U.I. B.Sc.(Hons) G.R.S.C. B.Sc.(Hons) Pharm. M.P.S.I. M.R.Pharm.S. M.B.A.(Healthcare) D.I.C.
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