Season for sniffles
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If you’ve been sneezing, wheezing, coughing and aching lately, it could signal allergies, a cold or flu. But with all sharing similar symptoms, how can you tell what’s really ailing you?
It helps to know the season.
Allergy season typically occurs in the spring and fall and is winding down, according to Dr. Bijal Davé, who warns that flu season is just starting and will continue through May, although December, January and February tend to be the most infectious months. Colds, she said, are most prevalent in winter.
“With the flu, symptoms are typically more intense compared to a cold,” said Dr. Davé, a family physician with Mariners Harbor Family Health Center, a part of the city Health and Hospitals Corporation.
“Flu hits suddenly with intense headaches, body aches and sore throat, and the feeling of being very tired and exhausted,” she said.
Colds, on the other hand, are milder and usually start with a runny nose, some congestion, a sore throat, and perhaps a small cough. Additionally, the duration of a cold is shorter, typically lasting up to a week or 10 days, whereas the flu can last for two to three weeks, Dr. Davé explained.
Fever is not a major symptom of either ailment, although it may occur with both cold and flu. Children are more likely to have a fever, and if they have the flu, also have a greater chance of experiencing vomiting and diarrhea.
Allergies, Dr. Davé noted, usually don’t present with body aches or fever. Instead, they are associated with itching in the throat, nose and behind the ears. Allergies also can last a few months, she said.
“As the weather gets cooler, people are spending more time indoors and are in greater contact with other human beings and contaminated items,” said Dr. Yael Halaas, an ear, nose and throat doctor based in Manhattan. “I’m always asking people, ‘when is the last time you cleaned your computer keyboard or phone?’”
Keeping yourself and your space clean is one way to prevent colds and flu, the doctors agreed, with Dr. Davé advising people to wash their hands often.
Dr. Halaas also suggests sneezing into the crook of your elbow, instead of hands, so as not to spread germs every time you touch an item. If you do sneeze into your hands, immediately wash them. She also is a proponent of antimicrobial liquids for helping keep germs at bay.
Dr. Davé added that one way to prevent the flu is with flu shots, which are available at her clinic to everyone regardless of insurance status. Anyone over six months of age — unless they are allergic to eggs — should receive the shot, she said. She encourages getting it done earlier in the season to avoid potential infection.
When it comes to allergies — including those caused by indoor allergens common throughout the year — Dr. Halaas advises taking an antihistamine. For both allergies and a cold, a decongestant can come in handy
“The decongestants relieve some nasal obstruction and control post nasal drip, so you’ll have less of a sore throat,” she explained.
Antibiotics typically are not needed to treat a cold, unless it progresses into a sinus infection, Dr. Halaas said. They are used more to treat bacterial infections and don’t kill the viruses that cause a cold.
But there are ways to relieve a cold, Dr. Halaas noted, including remedies made with zinc gluconate, which typically is found in Cold-EEZE products. She suggests using either the oral spray or lozenge, which can help to decrease the duration and severity of a cold.
As for the oft-mentioned bowl of chicken soup as treatment, Dr. Halaas admits there is some validity to it as a remedy, with studies showing the homemade version in particular can help soothe cold symptoms.
Getting proper treatment for flu is important, since it is far more serious, so consult your physician at the first sign of symptoms. Antiviral drugs like Tamiflu should be taken early on in the virus’ course to decrease its intensity and duration, the doctors said, explaining that after about 48 hours, the medication becomes less effective.
They also recommend supportive care, like taking Tylenol, drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, and getting plenty of rest.
“Flu could lead to pneumonia,” Dr. Halaas said, cautioning, “There could be more severe issues if it’s not treated.”
Andrea Boyarsky is Health editor for the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is urging New Yorkers to get a flu shot before flu season is in full swing.
Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious respiratory infection that, together with pneumonia, is the third leading cause of death in the city.
Flu season typically starts in the winter months, peaking in January through March.
The flu is estimated to kill an average of 23,600 people nationally and hospitalize over 200,000. In the city, more than 2,000 people die from flu and pneumonia each year.
Everyone from age 6 months and older, even if vaccinated last year.
A number of Island sites including the Staten Island Heart Imaging Foundation and the Borough President’s office offer free shots. Those 18 and up can get vaccinated at pharmacies. Flu shots also are available at Health Department clinics and Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) hospitals and community health centers.