Coughs? Sneezes? Aches?

Preparation & prevention keys to surviving cold & flu season

By Dr Mitch Shulman

Alfred* and Nathalie* entered the emergency room with their three-year-old son, Sam*. Both parents complained of 48 hours of fever (up to 39 C) with sore throat, runny nose and cough. Seven days earlier, Sam, who attended day care, had similar symptoms. They had taken Sam to his paediatrician who told them their son had a viral cold for which there is no specific therapy: fluids, acetaminophen, and time.

Alfred and Nathalie came to emergency to be tested because they were certain that something was wrong. One fear was an inherited immune-system defect since, every year from September to March, they were continuously sick. Not a day went by in that period without someone in the household falling ill with a sore throat, fever, cough or diarrhea.

Although I could empathize, it was unlikely the problem was with their immune systems. I asked about past medical history. Were there any serious recurrent or unusual infections in any of them? Was their son failing to meet his growth and developmental milestones? As expected, everything was status quo. Their physical exams were normal too, except for evidence of the cold both parents had obviously caught from Sam.

With autumn and the return of children to daycare or school, there’s a spike in strep throat and colds and other easily transmissible diseases. If one child is sick in these settings, the illness quickly spreads. In fact, about two weeks after the kids are back in school after any vacation, a flare-up of illnesses in the community is practically guaranteed.

There isn’t a lot that can be done to stop this process. Children, especially the young ones, don’t follow hand-washing and sneezing precautions. The adults taking care of them (at school and at home) can improve their chances of being healthy by eating properly, getting enough exercise and sleep; however, due to myriad bugs, we may never develop immunity to all of them.

Echinacea and Vitamin C are not foolproof when it comes to prevention. Simple hand washing — properly and regularly done — is the one preventative measure most likely to make a difference. Soap and water is effective and is the best choice. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers work and are good for when you’re away from any bathroom facilities.

If you do catch something, stay home. Don’t spread illness among your colleagues. Rest, drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the aches and pains. Sleeping with the head of the bed a bit elevated will help reduce the amount of secretions tickling the back of your throat at night. Tea with lemon and honey works to soothe a sore throat and calm a cough. Keeping the humidity in the room around 50 percent also helps. Chicken soup has been shown to lessen the misery as well but, as my grandmother used to say, if you don’t treat a cold it will last a week; treat it, and it will last seven days. I wish there was more that modern science could offer.

*fictitious names

Health Expert
Dr. Mitch Shulman is attending physician in the emergency department of the MUHC, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at McGill Medical School and a regular medical contributor to Global TV Montreal’s Morning News.

Fall 2014, Vol 6 N°4

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