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Viruses, Colds, Bacteria—Oh My!

Dr. Brown’s tips for keeping your house free of colds all year long

Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, joins us for another blog post about healthy pareting
Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, back as a guest blogger to LifeTales. Dr. Brown is a family physician in Toronto, Canada and a well-known national and international speaker on women’s health. She’s also the author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging: Seven essential ways to keep you vital, happy and strong.

Flu season might be winding down in the northern hemisphere as we move into our spring and summer seasons, but it’s just picking up in the southern hemisphere with the onset of winter.

Global air travel also makes it easy for colds, flu, bronchitis, sore throats, and many sinus and ear infections to surface at home, school and our workplaces year-round.

So how should you keep your family safe?

Think twice before asking for antibiotics

Many people assume that getting sick means they need an antibiotic to get better.

In fact, taking antibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses not only won’t work, it has dangerous side effects—over time. Globally, overexposure to antibiotics is producing drug-resistant bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics that may have worked in the past.

Increasingly, I find myself prescribing antibiotics in increasingly higher doses to help my patients recover when suffering from serious bacterial infections.

Antibiotic resistance is a widespread problem, and one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US call “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” With time, bacteria that were once highly responsive to antibiotics have become more and more resistant.

Among those that are becoming harder to treat are pneumococcal infections such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Meningitis

What’s the difference between bacteria and viruses?

Although bacteria and viruses are both too small to be seen without a microscope, they’re as different as giraffes and goldfish. 

Both types of infections are caused by microbes — bacteria and viruses, respectively — and spread by things such as coughing and sneezing, contact with infected people, especially through kissing and sex, contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water, contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects such as fleas and ticks.

But the infections are dissimilar in many other important respects, most of them due to the organisms’ structural differences and the way they respond to medications.

When should you ride out a cold or see a doctor?

A white ceramic cup with a metal spoon, a paper box of tissues and a pair of upside-down glasses imply it's flu time in this household.
Oh, we’ve all been there. When a cold hits, it’s time to bunker down, grab the tissues, get some tea and wait for your symptoms to pass.

While viruses and bacteria can cause similar symptoms, concerns that suggest a serious infection may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Decreased appetite
  • Overwhelming fatigue

Other symptoms, such as sore throats and swollen glands, are more generalized and may need an expert opinion to decide how best to proceed. They can occur with either bacterial or viral infections.

If your infection, sore throat, cough or flu-like illness is overwhelming and feels like the worst infection you can recall in some time, you should always go and get checked by your health care professional!

Another indicator that you need further attention is not seeing improvement or easing of your symptoms within a couple of days.

How to safely take antibiotics

A patient receives a vaccine shot in a medical office.
Getting the flu shot is one way to reduce your likelihood of contracting a serious illness, like the flu.

So what should you do? To increase your bacterial resistance and minimize your odds of getting sick, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Take antibiotics only for bacterial infections. It’s a good idea to let milder illnesses, especially those caused by viruses, to run their course. This approach helps prevent antibiotic-resistant germs from developing. But leave it to your doctor’s discretion to decide if your illness is “mild” or not.
  2. Take antibiotics for the full amount of time your doctor prescribes. Anything less won’t treat the bacterial infection.
  3. Never use antibiotics left over from other illnesses. Health Canada has guidelines for how to safely dispose of antibiotics.
  4. Help fight antibiotic resistance and prevent infections from spreading by frequently washing your hands and getting immunized, such as a flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine.

Ask your healthcare professional about over-the-counter treatment options that may help reduce your symptoms.

General suggestions for dealing with mild viral illnesses

For colds like these, the advice you got from your parents is likely the best:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or saline nasal spray to relieve congestion.
  • Soothe your throat with crushed ice, sore throat spray, or lozenges for adults.
  • Don’t give lozenges to young children! Try Popsicles or lots of cold liquid to drink.

We’d love to hear from you

Did you have a memorable illness or cold as a child? How about your kids? We’d love to hear about your journey. Drop us a line at hello@lifetales.com.

Do you have professional expertise of value to families? Would you like your expertise featured on our blog? Send your pitch to hello@lifetales.com. We can’t respond to all inquiries, but we’ll be in touch if there’s a fit.