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Staying cold- and cough-free this winter

As we look out our door in the morning to see the white frost on the windshields and our neighbors warming up their cars for work, we all become well aware we are now getting into the dreaded, "cold and flu" season. As temperatures drop, most noses will run and lungs will pick up their coughs.

During this time, it's helpful to know the appropriate, most helpful approach regarding this potentially wearisome season.

One of the hot topics for this chilly season is antibiotic use. Some of the questions that are asked quite frequently: What constitutes appropriate antibiotic use? If I am sick why isn't an antibiotic used? Why would overuse of an antibiotic pose problems? Let's first take a look at the first question.

It is very probable the reader has gone to his or her doctor feeling horrible, with or without a fever and been told, "It's a virus. Make sure you go home and drink plenty of fluids, alternate ibuprofen and acetaminophen for fever and pain. Make sure everyone washes their hands frequently."

Needless to say, sometimes we walk away feeling somewhat slighted. We ask, "Why the heck didn't I get my antibiotic?!" There could be many reasons for this.

One of the main reasons certainly could be due to the infection being from a virus. There are well more than 200 different types of viruses that can cause the symptoms experienced with the common cold. The majority of colds or upper respiratory infections are due to an infection of one or more of these viruses. Depending upon your history of present illness, as well as your physical exam, your physician might believe what you are suffering from cannot be overcome with an antibiotic. In fact, beginning an antibiotic in many of these cases could cause additional problems.

Antibiotic use with a person that is suffering from a viral infection will provide no benefit. In fact, other issues can occur such as gastrointestinal upset and antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some fashion that reduces or eradicates the effectiveness of the antibiotic designed to cure or prevent infections.

Typically, the symptoms of a viral upper respiratory infection will begin within 16 hours of initial exposure. The most common symptoms are fatigue, nasal drainage, cough, chills, fever and diffuse body aches, among others. For most of us, these symptoms are self-limiting with little to no medical intervention. However, these same symptoms can become quite intense depending on many factors for the host including other diseases such as diabetes or a weakened immune system. There are numerous over-the-counter remedies that promise either a quick resolution of the viral illness or the ability to limit such aggressive viral illnesses. Unfortunately, with most of these over-the-counter medications, they have not gone through adequate testing to prove many of their claims. But, there are successful ways to at least treat the symptoms that are ever-present with the common cold.

For aches, pains and fever, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen might be used. There are also many over-the-counter medications that will use a combination of these anti-inflammatories to help treat typical cold symptoms. Depending on your current medications, as well as medical condition, always contact your physician or health care provider before starting any medication. This includes any over-the-counter medication.

Other modalities to help with upper respiratory symptoms include increasing fluid intake (staying well hydrated), increasing daily rest/sleep and keeping a balanced diet. As with any disease process, prevention is of the upmost importance. One of the best ways to avoid viral upper respiratory infections is frequent hand washing; keeping a hand sanitizer with you can help with that activity. Avoiding large crowds such as department stores or outlet stores also is a good plan.

And Mom was right: Dress warm with layered clothing, wear gloves and a hat when out and about during the frosty months. Speak with your physician to see if you are able to get a flu shot. If the flu vaccine is available, and you are able to be vaccinated, be sure to get a flu shot. The importance of receiving a flu vaccine cannot be understated. Furthermore, if you are eligible to receive the pneumonia vaccine, please consider doing so. There are more than 60,000 annual deaths from influenza and pneumonia every year. Speak with your physician to see what recommendations they suggest for you.

The next time you see your physician for an upper respiratory ailment, discuss with them their findings as well as options for adequate treatment. It is during this conversation your physician will explain why or why not an antibiotic is recommended. However, before requesting an antibiotic, consider the possibility of viral infection. As stated above, there are more than 200 viruses that can cause the symptoms of the common cold.

Staying cough- and cold-free during the winter months is a challenging task. However, there are useful interventions that can take place to protect yourself and your loved ones. Some of the simplest interventions include hand-washing, staying up to date on your vaccines and keeping yourself warm while you are out during the cold months.

As with all medical conditions, always feel free to contact your physician or health care provider with any questions or concerns.

Dr. Charles Weintz, formerly of Hays, is a family physician at Stanton County Family Practice.