By Charly SHELTON
It’s the height of flu season and doctors’ offices across the northern hemisphere are slammed with patients. But what is a cold? What are germs? Why does going out in the cold cause a cold? Dr. John Rodarte of Descanso Pediatrics, part of Huntington Health Physicians, deals with these issues on an almost daily basis.
“Germs are actually tiny living organisms. The three main types are bacteria, viruses and fungi,” Rodarte said. “Viruses cause influenza, chicken pox, and measles, among other things. Bacteria can cause strep throat, some ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis. Fungal infections include thrush, athlete’s foot and ringworm.”
While not all germs are bad – some bacteria are helpful with digestion, some are just present on the skin and not dangerous – some do cause illnesses. Influenza is caused by three strains of a virus, A, B and C. Influenza A (H1N1) is the newest strain which hits hardest, bringing stronger symptoms that last longer and is more treatment-resistant. Colds are caused by a number of different viruses, most commonly rhinoviruses. Influenza and colds typically become an epidemic (striking a large portion of the population at one time) during winter months, becoming what we call flu season.
“Influenza typically hits in winter in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere (at opposite times of the year),” Rodarte said. “While there is no definitive known reason for this, there are several hypotheses, including increased person-to- person transmission during the colder time of the year when people tend to stay indoors and in closer contact, as well as the fact that the virus lives longer on surfaces in colder temperatures. The drier air in winter decreases the body’s ability to expel the virus due to dehydrated mucous. Thus, while the cold weather likely does play a role in influenza’s transmission, simply going out in cold weather will not cause you to catch a cold or the flu.”
So if cold and flu are transmitted by coming into contact with their viruses, there might be certain places more likely to carry the germs than others. A group of physicians at American Family Care recently released a statement on the “germiest places to avoid” to stay healthy. Among the top offenders were ATM buttons, gas pumps, cell phones, and something many of us don’t think about, community-use pens.
“Germs really are present everywhere. Unless something is sterilized, it’s virtually impossible for there to be no germs present. That’s why it’s so important to wash hands regularly when the potential for bad germs are present,” Rodarte said. “Getting an annual flu shot can also help protect you from catching influenza. And if you’re the sick one, covering up your cough and washing your hands can help you keep from spreading your germs to those around you, in addition to staying home if you’re sick.”
If one does become sick, fluids and bed rest are usually the best course of action, along with chicken soup. Should symptoms worsen, however, it may be time to go to the doctor, Rodarte said. Experiencing shortness of breath, beyond just being stuffed, could be a sign of a secondary pneumonia infection.
Dehydration is a common problem with sickness, so fluids are key. If symptoms last longer than the 10-14 days a normal viral infection runs, it may be time to see a doctor.
“Severity of cough itself, without shortness of breath, is not necessarily a reason to go to your doctor. In addition, coloration of mucous is also not always indicative of being a viral vs. bacterial infection,” Rodarte said. “If you suspect you have influenza (high fever, chills, headache, bodyaches, sore throat, coughing, sometimes vomiting … generally feeling much sicker than the average viral illness), then you may want to contact your doctor early after onset. Taking Tamiflu within 48-72 hours of onset of flu symptoms can help reduce the length of illness and contagiousness.”