Summer is now history, and for many of us, that’s going to mean colds and flu. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat, stuffed-up sinuses, and worse — everyone has experienced it, and each of us hopes to dodge it this year. Those of us with seasonal allergies are particularly vulnerable, as allergies can compound any problems.
But what happens if you get these symptoms and they don’t subside when you’d expect them to? What if they’re more severe than normal? What if what you feel seems like allergies, but you’re worried that it might turn into something different? What causes winter allergies in the first place?
How it happens
Lots of things that thrive in closed-up houses and damp, cool weather can cause allergies. Mold, for example. Many molds grow on rotting logs and fallen leaves, and unlike pollens, molds do not die with the first killing frost. On the other hand, dry indoor winter air, created by heaters or fireplace use, can also exacerbate sinus issues (some fireplaces also generate smoke, and pollutants can make matters still worse). Holiday scents, like those found in candles, aggravate some people’s symptoms. Also, the tendency to indulge in seasonal treats may trigger an unexpected reaction. Food allergies can occur when the body’s immune system sees a certain food as harmful and reacts by causing mild or more severe allergic symptoms.
The flu, meanwhile, is caused by the influenza virus. There are three types of human influenza viruses: A, B, C. Influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of disease almost every winter in the United States. Influenza type C infections generally cause a mild respiratory illness.
The flu is a highly contagious virus. Most healthy adults can infect others even before their symptoms develop and up to a week after. Children may pass the virus along for even longer. The flu can spread by person-to-person contact up to six feet away. Many experts believe the virus is spread by droplets made when a person talks, sneezes, or coughs.
What to do
As Grandma said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Before the weather starts cooling down, many people choose to receive an annual flu vaccination. Even if you’re confident that you can fight off a bug, those around you might be more vulnerable. This is especially true if you suffer from other health conditions. In past flu seasons, as many as 80 percent of adults hospitalized from flu complications had a preexisting long-term health condition, as did about 50 percent of hospitalized children. Asthma, diabetes, and chronic heart disease were among the most common of these.
There are many flu viruses, and they are always changing. Each year a new flu vaccine is made to protect against three or four viruses that are likely to cause disease in the upcoming flu season. But even when the vaccine doesn’t exactly match these viruses, it may still provide some protection.
But even if you’ve received your flu shot, there is no guarantee that you won’t contract the illness. People with the flu who have mild illness typically do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), if you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. Your doctor will determine any treatments that are needed and possibly prescribe antiviral drugs that can treat the flu. The sooner treatment is started, the better the drugs work.
Winter allergies can also cause cold symptoms such as stuffed-up sinuses. If you are allergy-prone, there are some steps you can take. Covering up your bedding, replacing carpets with hardwood floors (and keeping them clean), using dehumidifiers, and keeping dogs and cats out of bedrooms are good preventative measures.
In all cases, it’s very important to wash your hands with soap often and thoroughly. It is one of the best ways to protect you and your family from getting sick. Wash your hands before, during and after preparing food, after caring for someone who is sick, after blowing your nose, and after using the bathroom. Make sure you lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds.
But what happens if all that isn’t enough? Medical guidelines suggest that if the symptoms develop into a full-blown infection (complete with breathing problems and mucus), last longer than ten days, or get worse after seven days, it may be time to consider seeing a doctor.