Dr. Amber C. Bazler, MD
How do you know if it’s a cold or something else? Common myths about colds and flu.
What exactly is a cold?
A cold is an umbrella term for any infection of the upper respiratory tract. The respiratory tract includes the sinuses, nose, throat, voicebox, and upper airway. With few exceptions, such as middle ear infections, or streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat), infections of the upper respiratory tract are caused by viruses. And with 200 different virus types that can cause these symptoms, it’s easy to see why almost everyone around you seems to be sick. Or why we’re able to breeze through some colds while others have us knocked down for a while. Your symptoms will depend on what part of the upper respiratory tract is affected.
Symptoms can include any of the following: sinus pressure, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, hoarseness (laryngitis), cough (wet or dry), fever, headache, fatigue, and body aches.
Cold or flu?
The flu is also considered an upper respiratory infection (cold). So it will have the same symptoms as above but fever tends to be higher and symptoms such as body aches, headache, and fatigue are more pronounced. Healthy adults and children will usually do fine without any special treatment, but those at increased risk for complications (older than 65, pregnant women, those with diabetes or asthma) may want to take tamiflu or similar antiviral medication.
Could it be something else?
Cough and fever can also be a sign of a lower respiratory infection such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria and is treated with antibiotics. Bronchitis in healthy children and adults is caused by viruses and in most cases is not treated with antibiotics. Your doctor can tell the difference by examining you and asking about your symptoms. See your doctor if you have persistent fever (longer than 3-4 days) or difficulty breathing.
Myth vs. Fact
Myth #1: You can catch a cold from going outside without a coat (or wet hair).
Fact: Being cold doesn’t make you more likely to get a cold. You catch colds or flu by being exposed to the virus. This happens when an infected person coughs or sneezes around you, or you touch an object the germ is on (doorknob, pen, someone’s hand) and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Myth #2: Antibiotics help
Fact: Colds and flu are caused by viruses. And viruses don’t respond to antibiotics, so they don’t help you get over the illness faster or make you less likely to spread it to others. (Next time I’ll talk about what does work against viruses and helps you feel better faster).
Myth #3: If you get the flu shot too early, it won’t last all season
Fact: The flu vaccine (either flu shot or the nasal spray) is designed to last all season. So the best time to get the vaccine is as soon as it’s available! Even if that’s as early as August.
Myth #4: You’re more likely catch a cold on an airplane
Fact: Though we all think of the air being circulated on an airplane as full of viruses and bacteria, studies have shown recirculated air in the cabin led to no more colds than 100% fresh air. Cabins also use HEPA filters which are 99% efficient at removing viruses and bacteria from the air. You are; however, in close quarters with others who may be sick, and this can increase your risk of catching a cold. But no more so than being on a bus or any other public area around lots of people.
Myth #5: You can get the flu from the flu shot
Fact: Flu shots contain an inactivated virus, so it’s not possible to get the flu from the flu shot. The nasal spray form of the vaccine (FluMist for example) contains a weakened live virus. Though you also cannot get flu illness from FluMist, you may be more likely to get stuffy or runny nose than with the flu shot.
It’s possible to get the flu before or shortly after the flu vaccine (before the vaccine has had time to be effective) and people tend to think it was the vaccine that caused their illness.