Preventing common winter illnesses

By JAMES D. LOMAX, MD
Posted 11/6/19

We are now entering the time of year when we will experience an increase in the number of infectious diseases in our families, work places and communities. These conditions don’t only occur in …

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Preventing common winter illnesses

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We are now entering the time of year when we will experience an increase in the number of infectious diseases in our families, work places and communities. These conditions don’t only occur in cold weather, but in the winter, we live and work in more confined spaces where we are exposed to more droplet and surface-contaminated areas in the home, where we work and in public spaces.

Common winter illnesses:

Common cold: There are over 600 types of rhinovirus that cause this condition. We are all familiar with the symptoms of runny nose, sneezing, coughing, scratchy throat and watery eyes. Generally these symptoms last seven to 10 days, regardless of treatment. We are generally exposed to cold viruses by inhaling infected droplets/mucus from people coughing close to us. To date, there is no vaccine.

Influenza: The flu season runs October to March most years. Symptoms of influenza come on suddenly and last longer than a cold. The classic clinical picture is rapid onset of high fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, chills and harsh coughing. If you suspect that you have the flu, call your doctor because there are medications that can shorten the duration of these symptoms. We get exposed to influenza virus by droplet/mucus exposure and touching contaminated surfaces and then rubbing our eyes or mouth, transferring the virus to our system.

Strep throat: There are many reasons for having a scratchy or sore throat. Most of our sore throats are due to viruses and not bacteria. However, streptococcus infections are different than viral or allergic causes because of associated high fevers, more severe pain on swallowing and very red swollen tonsils, with and without white spots. Generally there are swollen neck lymph nodes. We can pick up this bacteria by exposure to sneezing/coughing or touching contaminated surfaces. If tests are positive for strep, antibiotics are appropriate.

Acute bronchitis: Bronchitis is the inflammation of the large bronchi of the lung and can be caused by infection from influenza, viruses and/or other bacteria. Often there is pre-existing conditions from smoking, chronic sinus drainage or allergies. It starts as a dry cough that changes to bringing up mucus. It is often accompanied by shortness of breath, headache, runny nose and sore throat. Regardless of the cause and in the absence of signs of pneumonia on x-ray, only supportive care such as humidification, cough medicine and analgesics are generally recommended. The persistent cough can last up to 10 weeks.

Whooping cough (pertussis): Whooping cough in a healthy adult generally is mild but persistent. It can be prevented by making sure all children and adults in a household get a booster vaccine. For premature and very young children, whooping cough can be life threatening. Annually, there are outbreaks around the country.

Pneumonia: Most pneumonia is viral-related at the start, but the later invasion of bacterial or fungus infections makes the clinical situation very dangerous. Presentation is fever, confusion, severe mucus production, shaking chills and rapid breathing. It is an important public health problem because it is estimated that there are three million people diagnosed with pneumonia each year with about 50,000 dying annually.

How to minimize your risk of exposure

There are a number of ways to protect yourself and your family from being infected by any of the above conditions. Prevention centers on preventing transferring a virus or bacteria into our bodies.

Hand-washing techniques: We teach our children how to wash their hands, but in general, adults do a very poor job in adequately cleansing hands.

When washing our hands, it is important to use an antibacterial soap. The basic steps are to first wet your hands, apply soap, rub our hands together for a minimum of 15 to 30 seconds, making sure that all of the surfaces of our fingers and thumbs and back of your hands are washed. You can also use alcohol-based antibacterial gel in the same way if a sink is not available.

Avoid inhaling droplets: Be aware of your surroundings when in public or at work. If you have to sneeze or cough, use a hanky, crook of your elbow, or Kleenex. However, most people cough into their hands. Not washing your hands immediately afterward will contaminate any surface you touch. Failure to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze will fill the air with these infected droplets.

Importance of immunizations: Annual flu vaccination and an annual review with your doctor of needed booster vaccines is important to protect you and family members. Typical boosters are influenza, tetanus, pertussis and pneumococcal vaccines (Pneumovax 23 and 13). Young children and adults over 65, healthcare workers and home-care professions are at the highest risk of suffering from complications of these infectious diseases.

If you are sick, avoid bringing your infection to school or work, or exposing people who are immune compromised. You are not doing a favor to friends and colleague by potentially infecting them. Do not visit family or friends who are hospitalized if you have a cold and are actively coughing.

There are other viruses that can cause community outbreaks such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and norovirus that can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal disease; but again, transmission can be reduced by following simple hand-washing principles and protecting yourself from droplet exposure. The use of a NP filter mask may be required if working in a healthcare or home setting.

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