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Taking preventive action best way to beat cold, flu

By Ron Fujimoto

LAST UPDATED: 4:28 p.m. HST, Jan 25, 2011

We've all been struck by a bad cold or the flu. The aches and congestion are never pleasant and always inconvenient. In our fast-paced society, we've been conditioned to want immediate relief. Surely there's a pill you can take to make that pesky cough go away in no time, right?

Not exactly. There is no medicine that can reduce the duration of a cold or the flu by more than a day or so. The hundreds of medicines in the drug store's cold-and-flu aisle will provide temporary relief for certain cold and flu symptoms, but they will not cure them.

Still, patients go to their doctor when they have a cold or the flu wanting a cure. Many will request an antibiotic and become frustrated if they're sent home empty-handed. Sometimes, doctors will prescribe an antibiotic just to appease their patients. This is a mistake.

Antibiotics are extremely effective in treating bacterial infections such as strep throat, pneumonia and certain skin infections. But colds and the flu are caused by viruses. Bacteria and viruses are not the same; they affect your body differently and need to be treated differently. If you take an antibiotic to treat a cold or the flu, the medicine will not be effective and could cause even more problems, including adverse side effects such as nausea and diarrhea.

More importantly, taking antibiotics unnecessarily contributes to a serious threat in our society: antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics are misused or overused, bacteria can alter their composition to overcome an antibiotic's effects. The bacteria continue to multiply in this new form, creating a unique bacterial strain that's resistant to antibiotics. Even though medical experts work tirelessly to create new antibiotics, they can't keep up with the overwhelming amount of resistant bacterial strains that keep surfacing.

So when my patients come to me with a cold or the flu, I explain to them that they should just weather the storm. There's not much you can do once you've gotten a cold or the flu to make it go away more quickly. Much like when Hurricane Iniki hit my Kauai neighborhood in the '90s, you simply have to wait and let the storm pass. You can help ease some symptoms -- like how we taped our windows and secured outdoor items -- with over-the-counter medicines, but there's no sense fighting the storm after it hits. Once it runs its course, you can "rebuild" your body with a nutrient-rich diet and plenty of rest.

There are certain instances when it may be appropriate to see your doctor when you have a cold or the flu. Call your doctor if you have:

» Severe symptoms lasting for more than a week.
» High fever.
» Sinus or ear pain.
» Chest pain or difficulty breathing.
» Thick yellow or green mucus for more than three days.
» Excessive diarrhea or vomiting.

These symptoms may indicate that you have something other than a cold or the flu. Otherwise, I always tell my patients the best treatment against colds or the flu is to prevent them in the first place. Avoid contact with people who are sick; wash your hands often; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; and eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables.

Flu shots are also a great way to prevent the flu. Recent medical guidelines recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months receive the vaccine annually. It's not too late to get your flu shot if you haven't already; the peak flu season is in January and February. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about getting a flu shot.

If you do get a cold or the flu, don't pressure your doctor for an antibiotic. Rest, drink plenty of clear fluids, and let the storm pass.

Ron Fujimoto, D.O., is a board-certified family physician. He is the medical director for HMSA's Health Plan Hawaii and Care Management and is HMSA's patient safety officer.

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