You may hear the sniffling of runny noses and raspy sounds of scratchy throats among your students (and staff). These may come from a common cold virus, but they can also appear wen more serious viruses such as influenza are about. Common colds are generally mild and self- limited but that’s not the case for influenza viruses. These viruses can be more serious and carry with them safety concerns because fever and certain cold medications can require attention and care.
Let’s look at the difference in a common cold and the flu.
The Common Cold
These viruses are common. Adults suffer common cold infections one to six times a year. Children have them more and have prolonged symptoms compared to adults. Many different viruses cause colds, including rhinoviruses, enteroviruses and, coronavirus.
Epidemics caused by influenza viruses occur yearly during autumn and winter in temperate regions. Worldwide, these epidemics result in 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness and over 250,000 deaths. The most likely to suffer these severe consequences are those over 65 or under 2 years of age, and those with chronic medical conditions. There are three types of seasonal influenza – A, B, and C. Only A and B type viruses are included in seasonal vaccines because type C infections are rare.
Signs, Symptoms, Treatments
The signs and symptoms of these two sicknesses are different. But one thing is consistent: Neither of these illnesses requires antibiotics for treatment. They are not bacterial infections and thus do not respond to antibiotics.
The Common Cold
The common cold usually begins gradually with a runny nose and sore throat. Congestion worsens and cough can develop as the infection progresses. Other symptoms can include headache, sneezing, and watery eyes. Most people feel their symptoms peak within ten days and then gradually dissipate as the cold winds down. There is no “cure” for the common cold and treatment is largely supportive: fluids, rest and symptom management.
Influenza usually brings a sudden onset of fever, body aches, fatigue, dry cough, runny nose without significant congestion, and sore throat. Symptoms tend to be severe immediately, and, then dissipate within 3-7 days. A mild cough can persist for two weeks or more in some cases. Influenza can be treated with an antiviral medication, but this must be started within 72 hours of symptom onset to be effective.
Any child should see a doctor* if they are noticed to have:
- A persistent fever over 100.4⁰F
- Symptoms that last longer than 10 days
- Extreme fatigue
*according to the Centers for Disease Control
When It Comes to Athletes
There are important considerations regarding the health and safety of students regardless of whether their illness is from the common cold virus or an influenza virus.
- No one should exercise with a temperature greater than 100.8⁰F Elevated body temperature is our body’s primary mechanism for fighting infection. Body temperature is also raised by exercise. These two combined could raise the body temperature to dangerously high levels. This can enhance the tissue breakdown of the infection and potentially strain the heart. Exercise should only continue after fevers have subsided without the aid of anti-pyretics (such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen).
- Strenuous exercise can also prolong recovery from illness. Proof of this is difficult to find but sports medicine traditionally uses a “neck check” prior to athletic activity: if symptoms are above the neck (nasal congestion, sore throat, sneezing – absent of fever) the athlete may train at half the usual intensity (as tolerated). For symptoms below the neck (productive cough, vomiting, diarrhea, fever or diffuse muscle aches) the athletes is advised to rest completely until the symptoms are gone. This strategy is pretty simple but it works well to protect those with more serious infections from training and worsening their conditions.
- There is also some caution that should be taken when medications are used for symptom management. Decongestants can dehydrate the body and should be used with caution during exercise.
Preventing the Spread of Viruses
Cold and flu infections are contagious – transmitted by direct and indirect contact with the viruses. Cold viruses are often carried on the infected persons’ hands and passed simply with hand-to-hand contact. It can also be picked up from contaminated surfaces. Influenza virus can be passed through the air – by inhaling respiratory droplets that the infected person has expelled by coughing. So it makes complete sense that frequent handwashing, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces and covering the mouth when coughing are powerful ways to prevent the spread of infection.
Sickness Isn’t Inevitable
There are several things that you can do and recommend that your students and staff do to strengthen the immune system and therefore reduce the chance of succumbing to the cold and flu viruses.
Your immune system is actually a network of cells, organs and molecules that work together to protect you from colds, flu and other ailments. Lots of factors influence how immune systems perform: lifestyle habits, training and nutrition.
You can strengthen your immune system by:
- Getting enough sleep
- Practicing good sports nutrition
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Maintaining healthy weight
- Getting enough rest and recovery
- Managing stress
It’s wise during this season, to keep an eye out for symptoms in staff, students and even parents so that you can take appropriate action in protecting everyone’s health and safety.
There is a thorough guide to staying healthy during cold and flu season from which we’ve summarized some details that was developed by Sheila Kealey (health promotion consultant, writer, and athlete). It’s available here.
Resources: St. Vincent Hospital and St. Vincent Sports Performance, Techniques Magazine, SheilaKealey.com