Your guide to cold weather illnesses this winter
As temperatures drop and people spend more time indoors with each other, the likelihood of spreading a virus increases. Additionally, our immune systems are generally less effective during the cold winter months, and some viruses survive better in cold and dry environments. Learning about these common cold-weather illnesses and the ways to protect yourself from them will help you and your community stay happy and healthy this winter.
What are common cold-weather illnesses?
Hallie Kretsinger, MD
According to Hallie Kretsinger, MD, a physician with the Internal Medicine Group at LMH Health, viral respiratory illnesses like the common cold and influenza are more prevalent in the winter. The symptoms for these conditions can range anywhere along a spectrum of very mild to very severe symptoms. Be aware of these illnesses in the coming months:
- Common cold: this term is used to describe mild respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, congestion and mild cough.
- Flu: Influenza virus infections generally result in more severe respiratory symptoms than the common cold, such as fever, headache, body aches and more severe cough.
- Bronchitis: the inflammation of the bronchial tubes which bring air to the lungs. It is usually caused by a viral infection but occasionally can be the result of a bacterial infection. Symptoms include cough, production of mucus, fatigue, shortness of breath, slight fever and chills, and chest discomfort.
- Pneumonia: the inflammation of the air sacs of the lungs. It can also be caused by either viral or bacterial infections. Catching a more mild illness like the common cold can make you more susceptible to conditions like pneumonia. Symptoms include cough, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting (especially in young children), and confusion (especially for older individuals).
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): a common respiratory virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms. While most people recover in one to two weeks, RSV can be serious for infants and older adults.
Rashid Riaz, MD
According to Rashid Riaz, MD, a pulmonologist with Lawrence Pulmonary Specialists, certain groups might be more at risk for experiencing complications from these viruses.
“Individuals over the age of 65 or with certain health conditions such as heart disease, lung conditions such as COPD or asthma, or people with compromised immune systems may be at a higher risk for more severe illness from conditions like the flu or RSV,” said Dr. Riaz.
Even if you aren’t a part of a higher-risk group, it is still important to be aware of these conditions and monitor any symptoms in order to receive the right treatment.
“If you are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms that do not improve, or if you are experiencing severe symptoms, you should contact your doctor,” said Dr. Kretsinger.
Prevention and Treatment
The best way to keep yourself healthy is by taking precautionary measures to prevent getting sick in the first place. Due to the pandemic, these measures have become more important than ever, and they can protect you from other viral respiratory conditions like the ones mentioned above.
“Last year, we actually had a very mild flu season which likely is attributed in some part to people wearing masks and avoiding close proximity to others. I think the pandemic showed us that if you wear a mask and increase social distancing, you can decrease not only COVID-19 but other illnesses as well,” said Dr. Riaz.
Besides frequent and thorough hand washing, wearing a face mask when around others and avoiding large gatherings, receiving the flu and COVID vaccines can also provide protection and/or reduce severity of symptoms as well.
As for treatment of respiratory viruses, mild cold symptoms can be managed with rest, hydration and over-the counter medicine. Antiviral medications can be used to treat influenza infections, so if you suspect you have the flu, contact your doctor to see if you should be tested. You should also contact your doctor if you suspect you have bronchitis or pneumonia, as further evaluation might be required to diagnose and distinguish between viral and bacterial forms in order to determine the most appropriate treatment.
Respiratory viruses and COVID-19
Because COVID-19 is also a viral respiratory infection, it shares many of the same symptoms with other respiratory viruses that are common in the winter. This can cause people to misdiagnose a more serious condition, like a COVID case, as the flu or a bad cold, and could lead to further spread of the virus if not treated properly.
Jennifer Clair, MD
Jennifer Clair, MD, a physician with Total Family Care, shared that it is important to stay home from work or school and be tested for COVID if you begin to experience symptoms like the ones listed above.
“Because of the pandemic, we want to be sure that those who are suspected of having COVID are isolating to prevent further spreading of the virus,” said Dr. Clair.
Dr. Clair also mentioned that treatment for influenza is most effective when started within the first 48-72 hours of onset symptoms. People at high risk for serious illness from COVID may be considered for monoclonal antibodies, a therapy which is also time dependent.
By taking care of your own health this winter, you also help keep your own community healthy and reduce stress on essential medical workers.
“COVID-19 has placed considerable strain on the medical system. In order to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and thereby allow them to provide adequate care to patients with COVID-19 (and all hospitalized patients in general), we need to minimize hospitalizations for other preventable conditions such as influenza infection,” said Dr. Kretsinger.
If you don’t already have a primary care provider, you can schedule an “Establish Care” appointment through any LMH Health clinic so that you have a medical professional to contact if you become ill and need further evaluation. Visit https://www.lmh.org/primary-care to find a physician near you.
Isabel Ashley is an intern with LMH Health Strategic Communications.