Respiratory illnesses might stick around

Published: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 8:08 p.m.
If you've found yourself left breathless in recent weeks, the cause may not be the changing weather. It could be a respiratory infection and, like an unwelcome winter guest, it could stick around for awhile.
Dr. Crystal Comeau, a family physician at Shands Eastside Community Practice, can speak from experience about this particular malady. She's been nursing a case herself for 2 weeks.
"This is the cold and flu season, and I'd say about 50 percent of the walk-in cases at our practice have had an upper respiratory infection that's viral in origin," Comeau said.
Most sufferers come into the doctor's office after the symptoms have hung on for a week or more, she said. Families are particularly vulnerable, with parents and children passing it back and forth for weeks at a time. A child brings the virus home from school or day care, and soon everyone in the family is coughing and sneezing.
Because the infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics will have no effect, Comeau said. Still, she said, a visit to the doctor can assure that it is nothing more serious.
Each year, up to 125,000 infants are hospitalized due to severe viral respiratory disease, and a small percentage die. Infants born prematurely, those with chronic lung disease, those who are immunocompromised, and those with certain forms of heart disease are at increased risk.
Those who are exposed to tobacco smoke, who attend day care, who live in crowded conditions or have school-age siblings are also at higher risk, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The weather - although it may be warm one day and freezing the next - really plays only a minor role in the return of respiratory infections each winter. Contributing to the spread are the fact that many of us are living and working in enclosed spaces, running the heat and can't get outdoors as often as we'd like, Comeau said.
"If you are running a fever and feeling poorly, stay at home," she advises. "Don't bring it into the workplace where you can infect other people."
If you've noticed your coworkers coughing and sneezing at their desks, there are some precautions you can take. Wash your hands. Don't share drinks. Ask coworkers to dispose of tissues properly.
The virus can live for half an hour or more on hands, up to five hours on countertops and for several hours on used tissues.
If you share a phone, use a cleansing agent on it. The same goes for computer keyboards.
Once you've caught the bug, however, there's little to be done except to let it run its course.
"Relief of symptoms is about all you can do, using nasal saline and a humidifier, perhaps trying Flonase or a nasal steroid to dry up the nasal discharge," Comeau said.
"Really good hygiene is the key to getting rid of it," she said. "A little Lysol can save you a lot of suffering."
Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@


Hygiene habits key to recovery

Respiratory infections

Symptoms vary with age and can include:

  • nasal congestion.

    n cough.

  • rapid or labored breathing.

  • shortness of breath.

  • wheezing.

    n fever.

  • croupy cough.

    To break the cycle:

  • Wash your hands often with warm water and soap.
  • Avoid contact with others if they have a cold or fever.
  • Viral respiratory infection is very common among young children and is easily spread from child to child. Keep such children away from any baby in the family.
  • Do not smoke near a child or baby. Exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of viral respiratory illness.
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