Whether or not you like the winter months that are upon us and the holidays and winter sports they bring, one thing is certain: no one likes the illnesses that commonly spring up during this time of year. Winter brings with it many ear, nose, and throat (ENT) health conditions and they range from the common cold to bronchitis.

First, we should talk about the common cold. Sooner or later everyone catches a cold. There are many wives tales as to why we catch colds; going outside with wet hair, rapid changes in outdoor temperatures, etc.. However, in reality the common cold is caused by many different viruses. That is what makes them so difficult to cure and even trickier to prevent. It is also why cold symptoms can be addressed but the causes can’t be eradicated.

Here are some of the many viruses that may cause the common cold:

  1. Respiratory syncytial virus: RSV infects the lungs and breathing passages. In healthy people, this virus causes mild symptoms that last a week or two. Symptoms can be more serious for children younger than two years old and the elderly. It’s very contagious. This virus is the number one cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children less than 1 year of age. Symptoms include fever, breathing difficulty, coughing up of yellow/green/grey mucous, dehydration, and refusal to breast- or bottle feed.
  2. Human parainfluenza viruses: HMPV is in the same family as the RSV virus and causes respiratory infections typically in children under the age of 5. However, it can also affect older people and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include cough, fever, nasal congestion, and shortness of breath. It is contagious and is spread through contact, coughing, and sneezing.
  3. Human metapneumoviruses: The HPIV viruses commonly cause respiratory illnesses in infants, young children, older people, and those with weakened immune systems. The symptoms of HPIV-1/HPIV-2 include croup, fever, cough, and runny nose. HPIV-3 symptoms include bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia.

The best way to prevent contracting the common cold is to wash your hands. In fact, the CDC says washing hands is the number one way to prevent the spread of illness and disease. Make sure you wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with hand sanitizer or soap and water, rinse and dry them well.  Teach your children to do the same.

If you do catch a cold, the best treatment is to rest and drink a lot of fluid to wash the cold virus out of your body. You can treat some of the symptoms, like nasal and chest congestion, with over-the-counter medications but they will not cure the cold. The cold virus will run its course and cure itself.

That brings us to bronchiolitis, a respiratory infection that occurs in the lungs of infants and small children. It can be caused by the same virus as the common cold. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)1 approximately 57,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized each year with bronchiolitis caused by the RSV virus. It’s so common, that when infants and small children are first exposed to RSV, one-quarter to nearly one-half of them will show signs of bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

The early symptoms of bronchiolitis can present themselves as the common cold with a runny, congested nose, a slight cough and a low-grade fever. However, symptoms then worsen and can include wheezing, “tugging” of the chest muscles to breathe, coughing and ear infections.

If your child develops these symptoms, and begins to not eat or drink, or has trouble breathing, contact your physician right away. Children younger than six months old may be hospitalized to treat the condition. Most children who contract the RSV virus will recover in one to two weeks.

Influenza also rears its ugly head in the winter months, typically between December and March. Even though many of us may say  “I have the flu” when feeling lousy, the real thing is a serious, contagious, respiratory illness that poses great danger to the very young, the very old or those whose health is compromised by chronic disease like heart disease or asthma. Symptoms can be mild to severe and can cause discomfort, hospitalization or in some cases, death.  Some of the most common flu symptoms include:

  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Aches and pains throughout the body including headaches
  • A cough and/or a sore throat
  • Fever and chills
  • Overall fatigue

Influenza is caused by a virus that varies from year to year. Each year the CDC conducts tests on flu viruses circulating in the United States to determine their characteristics. Vaccines are then developed to match the viruses as closely as possible in order to fight them.  Each week the CDC publishes a flu report2 on activity around the United States.

The very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should be vaccinated against influenza each year. If you do get the flu and are in one of these categories, see your physician immediately. If you are generally healthy and get the flu, rest and drink lots of fluids. Stay home so as not to infect others with the virus. If your symptoms worsen contact your doctor. Antiviral drugs may shorten the course of the illness by a few days.

Other common illnesses that occur in the winter include croup, pneumonia and strep throat. We’ll discuss these in part II of our series on common winter illnesses. Stay tuned.