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Sore Throat, Stuffy Nose — "Here We Go!"
By Ned Ketyer, M.D.

Damian Ternullo M.D.

It starts as a little sniffle when your child's bus drops them off at school. Increased stuffiness and nose-blowing follows. The throat gets scratchy and then a little sore. By the time she comes home, she has started to cough and complains of feeling chilled. Her forehead feels warm.

"Here we go," the girl's parent says on a cold January evening. "Let's hope this is just a cold."

How do we know this girl's upper respiratory illness is just that — a common cold — and not something worse, like the flu?

Most common colds are caused by rhinovirus (literally, "nose" virus). Symptoms are familiar (like the ones mentioned above), mild, and last several days before resolving, usually in 7-10 days. The flu, on the other hand, results from infection by one of several different strains of influenza virus. Symptoms progress much faster than the common cold and are much more severe. Heavy congestion and coughing, sore throat, headaches and body aches, high fever — basically the worst cold you can think of that hits hard and doesn't let go for at least 5-7 days before its grip is released. Most people who get the flu will take another 5-7 days to recover. School and work will be missed, activities will be cancelled, appointments with the doctor will likely be made.

Since both the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics will not be helpful in curing the infection; neither will typical cold and cough medicines, which can cause harm to children, be effective in easing the miserable symptoms. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of warm and cool beverages (sipping fluids can be an effective cough suppressant), using acetaminophen or ibuprofen at recommended doses to reduce fever and aches and pains, and resting by staying home from school and work are usually all that are needed to recover quickly and completely from colds and flu. The development of shortness or breath, chest pain, horrible headache, inability to drink adequate amounts of fluids, or repetitive vomiting are all signs that require immediate medical attention. Frequent and effective hand washing with soap and water by the person who is sick and all her caretakers is imperative in order to prevent the spread of these common cold and flu viruses to others.

"It can't be the flu — she got her flu shot back in October!" exclaims the relieved parent. An annual influenza vaccine is by far the most effective tool we have in preventing a common infection that unfortunately results in far too many deaths in young infants, the elderly, people who battle chronic illnesses, and many otherwise healthy people — our friends and family members, classmates and coworkers, and even perfect strangers. An annual flu shot protects the person who receives one as well as those people around them.

It's not too late to get your flu vaccine. If you haven't received one yet, don't delay — get your flu shot today!

Ned Ketyer, M.D., one of the founding physicians at Pediatric Alliance, is the editor of the The PediaBlog. For more information on Pediatric Alliance, visit the website www.pediatricalliance.com

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