October 1, 2012
By Jonathan Sackier
As fall arrives, the pleasures beckon: convection-free skies, crackling fires, warming stews, and holidays. And colds and flu. Which are the same thing, right? Not at all—and distinguishing the two is important.
The common cold is the most frequent source of human illness and is caused by infection with one of more than 200 virus types. The Greek word for your nose is rhino; quite fitting as colds are predominantly caused by a rhinovirus, which makes your proboscis feel like it has a thick gray skin and a couple of horns. Next up are coronavirus, so-called because they have a corona or halo, but these viruses are no saints, inducing nasty infections such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Once exposed to a virus, immunity rises and repeat infection is not possible. Although leopards may not change their spots, these tricky little rhinos do; minor structural adjustments and next month they infect again.
Colds are passed either in droplets when a sneeze or cough hits you in the face, or by physical contact such as shaking hands with someone suffering nasal explosions. Fever accompanies most infections, but here it tends to be mild and brief. Viruses inflame the mucous membranes inside the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, and eustachian tubes (joining middle ear and mouth). In turn, the membrane, which is already irritated by having such a gross-sounding name, gets really ticked off and starts to produce, well, mucus. This clogs up your rhino—preventing you from smelling the roses or anything else—stimulating sneezing as you attempt to expel all that crud and forcing mouth breathing. Talk about vicious cycles—your throat is already sore from all the rhinoviruses charging around down there; now you have to dry it out by mouth breathing? And inflammation and mucus also makes you cough. Ouch! On top of that, blocked eustachians impede hearing and cause earache.
With bed rest, aspirin, and fluids, a common cold is cured in less than 14 days. Left alone it takes two weeks. Some advocate zinc-based lozenges when first feeling the tickle of a cold, and other herbal remedies abound. Neti pot saline irrigation of your nose may help minimize symptoms. I personally recommend the therapeutic effect of chicken soup—whether because of anti-inflammatory properties or just the thought that someone loved you enough to make it, soup can help effect a cure.
Situational awareness in flying prevents accidents; true also for cold prevention. Avoid the propwash, keep ears and eyes open for coughs and sneezes spreading diseases. Keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer on board and use it after shaking hands, opening doors, and so on during cold season. If you are the victim, stay home, isolating yourself from family members to limit cross infection; do not fly until fully recovered. Diminished hearing, distractions from hacking up lung chunks, and mucus in your microphone means you will not function perfectly. And then there is equalization. Felt your ears pop on ascent or descent? Imagine not being able to equalize because of tubal blockage—pain severe enough to make you sing soprano, with permanent damage possible.
Influenza, or the flu, is both a disease and the name of the virus family responsible. Heard about “swine flu” or “bird flu?” Actually, all flu originates in animals and is passed between them and humans in close contact, bugs mutating as they jump species. Viruses have surface proteins, two of which are given a number to help identify each nasty little critter—hence, H1N1 refers to hemagglutinin 1 (16 options) and neuraminidase 1 (nine options). You should win a Trivial Pursuit game with that one! Disseminated by close contact as above, flu is sometimes a mild illness indistinguishable from a cold, but it may be severe or even fatal. Usually arriving fast, flu produces more pronounced fever, chills (rigors) and feeling generally ill. Aching muscles, headache, fatigue, and sleepiness combined with cough, sore throat, and runny nose complete the miserable picture.
Like a cold, most flu sticks around for 14 days. Without proper care, secondary pneumonia, bronchitis, ear, or sinus infection can follow. Take this seriously; every year flu kills thousands of Americans. Prevention? As with colds, avoid people who look a bit under the weather and do not be generous with your viral load—stay at home when sick. Get vaccinated (as long as no medical reasons suggest otherwise) and have family members do likewise. Flying should be deferred, as with colds, but recovery probably will take longer.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Jonathan Sackier talks about allergies.
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