It’s that time of the year again. You can’t sleep, your body aches, you’re sneezing, coughing, have a runny nose, maybe some chills and a sore throat. It may just be a nasty cold or the flu or an even nastier respiratory infection.
Acute bronchitis, sinusitis and pneumonia are three common respiratory tract infections (RTIs) that make millions of people miserable during cold and flu season.
Great, and what can I do about that, you say? Well, consider the RTIalert as an opportunity to practice some preventive “germ warfare.”
“The RTIalert is mostly designed to give people a two- to three-week warning time to prepare for the fact that RTIs in their area will be peaking. It allows them to get a pneumonia and a flu vaccine that will be effective the time that the RTIs will be hitting,” says Paul Ianinni, clinical professor of medicine at Yale University and chairman of the department of medicine at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut.
Ianinni is also the scientific adviser for the RTIalert system, which is sponsored by the Bayer Corporation. The RTI incidence data is derived from a weekly survey of about 30,000 physicians and information gleaned from 85 to 100 million outpatient visits in 72 regions per year. Alert readings are reported on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 indicating the highest incidence of RTIs in a particular area. You can check RTIalert Web site for local information.
Not all RTIs are contagious. It depends on whether the infections are in bacterial, viral or fungal form, Ianinni says. “The bacterial infections are less contagious than the virals, and they are easier to treat.”
Some bacterial RTIs are treated with antibiotics; the others are not. All of them, however, invade the respiratory tract and can cause you to feel miserable enough to miss time from work and/or interfere with other daily activities.
When to see the doctor
Since RTIs share symptoms of a bad cold or the flu, what are the signs you need to go to the doctor?
“If you have a cough and you develop shaking chills, a temperature in excess of 101.5 degrees F, pain on breathing or coughing, or sputum that looks like pus, then you really want to see a doctor,” Ianinni advises.
Your physician will try to determine whether you have a bacterial or viral infection by doing a physical examination and listening to the history of your symptoms and how they’ve changed.
Doctors should not automatically prescribe an antibiotic without determining if you have a bacterial infection, Ianinni says. Not only is there the risk of antibiotic resistance when an antibiotic is over-prescribed, but the antibiotic isn’t going to help if you have a viral infection.
If you are prescribed an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, Ianinni says it’s very important that you finish it. “Not completing it is what gives bacteria the opportunity to become resistant to the antibiotics,” he says.
You might not know what you have until you see a doctor, but here’s some information so you can recognize the symptoms and take some action to get better:
- Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the major breathing tubes called bronchial tubes (or bronchi) that connect the windpipe (or trachea) to the lungs. Bronchitis may be acute or chronic. Brief bouts of acute bronchitis (lasting about 10 days) often occur following a severe cold or flu. However, bronchitis may develop gradually because of heavy smoking or inhaling polluted air. Chronic bronchitis lasts three months or more, and symptoms such as cough, excessive phlegm (or mucus), and/or shortness of breath can return year after year.
- Avoid smoking or secondhand smoke, dust and other air pollutants.
- Follow a nutritious, well-balanced diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Sinusitis is an inflammatory disease of the sinuses. Symptoms of acute sinusitis, viral or bacterial, may initially appear to be cold-related or an allergy attack but become more severe and last beyond a week. They include: excessive production of thick, sticky, yellow-green mucus, or mucus that develops a bad odor or taste; severe pressure and pain in the face and forehead; coughing; and nasal congestion lasting more than 10 to 14 days.
- Use a humidifier.
- Make sure your air-conditioning and heating systems are equipped with filters.
- Avoid cigarette smoke and drinking alcohol. (Both cause the nasal-sinus membranes to swell.)
- Avoid swimming in chlorinated pools. (The chlorine irritates the lining of the nose and sinuses.)
- Pneumonia is a serious infection of the lungs, which can have more than 30 different causes. The main causes are bacteria, viruses, mycoplasmas (which have both viral and bacterial characteristics), other infectious agents, such as fungi, and various chemicals. Symptoms vary, depending on what type of pneumonia you have. However, they can include coughing with or without phlegm production, chest pain, shortness of breath, chills, shaking and/or fever, similar to flu-like symptoms.
- Get a flu shot. (Pneumonia is a common complication of the flu.)
- If you are at risk for the infection, ask your doctor about a vaccine available to help fight pneumococcal pneumonia, one type of bacterial pneumonia.
Lastly, Ianinni has some advice for staying healthy during a time when a lot of people are likely to get sick that sounds much like what many Doctor Moms recommend.
That is, wash your hands frequently and avoid crowded places, such as malls, to avoid being exposed to respiratory viruses that cause pneumonia and bronchitis. Infection can be spread by coughs and sneezes.