Seasonal Flu

You do not need to be a Park Nicollet patient. All major insurances accepted.

Every fall, familiar symptoms spread throughout countless classrooms and offices. Some people have a fever, headache, fatigue and aches. Others have congestion, a sore throat or vomiting. Is it a cold, the flu - or could it be the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu?

"The terms 'cold and flu' are used rather loosely by the public," says Carol Manning, MD, an urgent care doctor at Park Nicollet Clinic-Brookdale. "Both conditions are caused by viruses and have to be cleared by our immune systems; antibiotics won't help."

Clarifying terminology

It may be difficult to know whether an illness is a cold or the flu because symptoms sometimes overlap. To clarify, Dr. Manning offers the following definitions:

A cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), causes a variety of symptoms, usually beginning with a sore throat, followed by a runny nose, post-nasal drip and cough. It sometimes is accompanied by a low-grade fever (between 99? and 101?) and fluid in the ear. The severity and duration of symptoms vary greatly. Many different viruses cause URIs.

Influenza, commonly called the flu or seasonal flu, also involves a respiratory infection along with a high fever (between 102? and 104?) for five to seven days, chills, muscle aches and headache. Influenza tends to come on abruptly and lasts from five to seven days.

Stomach flu, also known as viral gastroenteritis, can include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever.

Lower respiratory infection involves the lungs. Examples include bronchitis and pneumonia, which can be caused by a virus or bacteria.

H1N1 virus is a type of influenza. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest information on the H1N1 virus.

Initial treatments

Most people begin treating cold or flu symptoms with over-the-counter medications. Doctors and pharmacists often recommend the following:

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat body aches and fever
Over-the-counter decongestants, such as SudafedR, to treat nasal congestion (People with high blood pressure and young children should avoid taking Sudafed. Instead, they may take ClaritinR, an allergy medication, or use a saline nasal wash.)
NyQuilR to prevent nighttime coughing
ImodiumR to treat severe diarrhea
When to seek medical attention

"If you experience severe vomiting, it is important to call your doctor or seek advice from Urgent Care," Dr. Manning says. Antivomitting medication is available by prescription. She also advises people to avoid dairy products when sick with the stomach flu, because the intestines become temporarily unable to digest them, often resulting in diarrhea.

Many times, a cold or flu leads to secondary infections, such as bronchitis, bacterial pneumonia, and sinus and ear infections. "Unlike the cold and flu, which are caused by viruses, secondary infections are caused by bacteria, and can be successfully treated with antibiotics," Dr. Manning continues. "If cold and flu symptoms persist longer than a week, or if a high fever persists or returns, visit your doctor or go to Urgent Care."

Dr. Manning encourages people to seek a doctor's advice if they are short of breath or remain lethargic, which can be signs of pneumonia. "It is especially important to seek medical attention for the elderly and babies if they have these symptoms," she adds.

Prevention strategies

Getting a flu shot is your best bet for preventing the flu. Because the flu usually is spread when infected people cough or sneeze, wash your hands regularly. When you have a cold, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, and don't share food or drinks with others. It also helps to get adequate rest.