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Colds: Coughing Up the Truth

The dreaded cold is something that we will all be faced with at some stage of our lives. In fact it is so common that it accounts for roughly a quarter of all primary care visits. Furthermore it is important to note that in the US roughly three quarters of all antibiotics are prescribed in the primary care setting. With all of this in mind it is important to arm ourselves with some basic knowledge in order to ensure that we receive the best, most appropriate treatment that we deserve.

In order for us to fully understand this subject it is important to recap on a few basic anatomical principles. Upper respiratory infections (URTI) are defined as being acute (sudden onset) infections of the upper respiratory tract which typically include the nose, sinuses, pharynx and larynx. Should an infection affect any part of the anatomy beyond this point it will typically be referred to as a lower respiratory infection.

Typically adults can expect to suffer from colds roughly 2-4 times per year. This is a perfectly normal amount of episodes and should not be interpreted as signal for more sinister underlying conditions. Symptoms will often include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headaches and body aches. We usually expect symptoms to peak around day 3 at which point your symptoms should gradually start to improve. Cold symptoms can easily last around 7-10 days.

Here are some facts about colds and URTI’s:

  • Green/yellow sputum does not mean you have a bacterial infection

  • Colds are caused by around 200 different types of viruses and therefore antibiotics will not be effective as a treatment

  • 90-98% of sinusitis cases are caused by viruses

  • Streptococcal infections only cause 5-10% of all sore throat cases

Take-Away Message:

When we consider all the information above antibiotics should only be prescribed and used in very select circumstances. The vast majority of respiratory illnesses will improve on its own with conservative treatment. If however you are unsure of your symptoms or you do not feel that your are getting better it is always a good idea to visit your local GP.

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