Here it is again, the cold and flu season when we all head indoors to share our sneezes and viruses. It’s time to get serious about preventing illness, and that means caring for our personal air filter: the nose.
Viruses are the worst seasonal offenders, and colds are the most common virus we pass around. But the influenza virus is so much worse than a cold. Most folks do not really understand the difference between these two illnesses, yet the difference can be deadly.
Influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is caused by the influenza virus. This is a specific respiratory virus quite different than the cold virus. The entire respiratory tract—including the nose, throat, and lungs—becomes infected. The illness is severe and can be life-threatening; children, the elderly, and those who have underlying medical conditions are at greatest risk for complications.
So how serious is the influenza virus? Large influenza epidemics occur almost every winter. Based on the best data we can access, each year between five percent and 20 percent of the US population will get the flu. About 200,000 will be hospitalized and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 will die from flu-related complications every year. Complications include ear infections, sinus infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia, with pneumonia being the most deadly, especially to those who are very young or very old.
Full-blown symptoms of the flu often develop suddenly. “I was fine before lunch, and then I suddenly felt horrible by 2:00. It was like I was hit by a Mack truck.” Symptoms include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and severe muscle aches. Children can also have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The clinical difference between the flu and a cold is this: the flu symptoms and possible complications are much worse than the common cold. The fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough of the flu are more intense. Colds usually do not develop into pneumonia, secondary bacterial infections, or require hospitalization.
The distinction I see as a medical provider between a common cold and the flu is clear. A person with a cold will walk normally into the clinic and complain miserably about their symptoms. They may complain of a cough and tightness in their chest, but they will not be incapacitated. But someone with influenza will appear very ill, barely able to climb onto the exam table. Their entire body will be affected, every muscle feeling sore, tired, and toxic. Most patients with influenza are unable to leave their house and instead wait for several days before seeing a doctor, saying, “I was too sick to come in.”
Surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control recommendations during flu season miss one of the most effective and safest self-care practices we should be using! While they advise us on prevention and recommend coughing into elbows (not hands), washing hands frequently, and getting flu vaccines, they are forgetting about cleaning the body’s air filter.
The nose is the primary invasion route for respiratory viruses, so here is where its job of filtering is so vitally important. Both influenza and cold viruses are spread mainly through respiratory droplets—spread by coughs and sneezes from infected people. A typical sneeze can propel up to 100,000 droplets through the air. The droplets can survive anywhere from a few seconds up to 48 hours, so it is possible to be exposed by touching a surface that was sneezed on or touched by infected hands earlier in the day.
Remembering that most viruses enter through the nose reminds us that the function of the nose as a filter is extremely important. For best prevention, the nose washing solution must be hypertonic and buffered for comfort—an isotonic solution may wash nicely but does not inactivate viruses. Keeping that filter in good working order is essential during cold and flu season, and hypertonic washing is always effective, no matter how often viruses change their shape or form.
Bottom line: Practicing good public hygiene habits and washing your nasal filter regularly can give you the best possible protection from both the influenza and the common cold virus.
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