When It’s Not Just a Cold
Respiratory illnesses and how to prevent and treat them.
Most of us assume we’ll be reaching for the tissues and chicken soup at some point during the winter. But how do you know if what you’ve got is a garden-variety cold or something else?
Many respiratory illnesses begin as colds and then progress into something else. So take proper care of yourself when you’re sick—stay home, rest and drink plenty of fluids. You’ll also be less likely to spread whatever bug you’ve caught. “Don’t put your fellow human beings, your neighbors at risk,” says Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicineat Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Check out our list of the most common respiratory illnesses and how to treat and prevent them.
Influenza. The hallmark symptoms of flu include fever, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches and fatigue, chills, coughing and sore throat. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can still have the flu without a fever. If you suspect that’s what you’ve got, get to the doc: Oseltamivir, often known as Tamiflu, can reduce your chances of contracting the flu if given within 48 hours of exposure, says Dr. John Bartlett, Johns Hopkins Medicine infectious disease expert. “The earlier you get it, the better it works,” he says. It can also reduce the duration of flu symptoms.
Prevent it by getting a flu shot every year. “Make sure everyone in your family does it,” Schaffner says.
Pneumonia. This infection of the lung can be caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi. According to the National Institutes of Health, the bacterial form tends to be the most common in adults—and the most serious. You should seek medical help if you suspect you have pneumonia because you may need antibiotics. It can be difficult to decipher symptoms from the flu, but shortness of breath and chest pain are warning signs.
Prevent it by considering a pneumonia vaccination if you’re over 50. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of the Prevnar 13 pneumonia vaccine for adults age 50 and older. There’s also an older pneumococcal vaccine called Pneumovax. If you’re under 50 and not in a high-risk category, you probably don’t need a vaccine, Bartlett says.
RSV. Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, can be very dangerous for babies and young children whose lungs have small airways that are easily inflamed. It’s less common in adults, but can be serious for anyone with a compromised immune system. Because RSV is a virus, it can’t be treated with antibiotics, so you typically have to wait it out.
Prevent it the way you do a cold, by washing your hands with soap and warm water frequently, and using an anti-bacterial hand sanitizer when you need to disinfect but can’t get to a sink. A vaccine may be on the horizon.
Bronchitis. There are countless variations of the pesky rhinovirus, most of which simply cause a short-lived cold. However, if it doesn’t subside, rhinovirus can eventually cause inflammation of the passages to the lungs, which is known as bronchitis. Again, since it’s viral, not bacterial, it can’t be treated with antibiotics so your best bet is to avoid it in the first place.
Prevent it by not smoking, and generally following healthy guidelines to protect yourself from cold and flu.