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It's not the flu, but common cold mimics some symptoms

Sniffling,

sneezing

, runny nose? Most likely it's the common

cold

and not the

flu

. Area health services report that the numbers of people presenting with "influenza-like illnesses" are running true to form for the time of the year when the viruses typically peak. By contrast, the flu, which hit hard last year compounded by the H1N1 strain, hasn't had a significant impact yet.

More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold with its symptoms of a runny nose, sore

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throat
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, sneezing and

coughing

, symptoms that can last up to two weeks. The rhinovirus is the most common of those, accounting for between 40 and 50 percent, according to David Trump, director of the Peninsula Health District. Currently, 2.3 percent of emergency room visits are for flu-like illnesses, which cover a broad swath of upper respiratory infections. "It is higher than the normal baseline, but not markedly higher," says Trump.

At

Sentara

Port Warwick, Twania Hilliard, emergency room manager, concurs. "The numbers are about average," she says. Health departments don't keep statistics on the common cold, as such, because the treatment is symptomatic, meaning that no medication is recommended. The average adult will contract two to three a year and the average child between six and 12. "It's very common, it's a nuisance," says Trump.

Treatment for a cold

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Though there's no cure, numerous over-the-counter products promise relief for the discomfort colds can cause. But, while

OTC medicines

may help relieve symptoms, such as runny nose and congestion, they do not shorten their duration.

The

Centers for Disease Control

recommends that sufferers get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, use a clean humidifier or a cool-mist vaporizer (plants act as natural humidifiers) and avoid smoking or secondhand smoke. To relieve pain or fever, adults can take

acetaminophen

,

ibuprofen

or naproxen.

For children

"Children get sick quicker than adults, but they can beat us getting well," says Nancy Lemis, epidemiologist at Hampton's health department. "Mostly they're not running a fever, but just feeling miserable for a few days." However, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) which causes cold-like symptoms in healthy adults, can cause infants to become very sick with wheezing and breathing problems. "It's very common at this time of year," says Theresa Sheppard, a physician with

Hampton Roads

Pediatrics. It can require hospitalization and the administration of oxygen and fluids.

Children should not be given aspirin because of Reye's syndrome, a rare but very serious illness that harms the liver and brain. Typically, children older than 6 months can take Tylenol or ibuprofen for pain and fever relief; however, nonprescription cough and cold medicines are not recommended for those younger than 4 years old. Health director Trump discourages the use of decongestants and drying agents in children. "They don't help resolve symptoms any earlier," he says. Both the CDC and the

American Academy of Pediatrics

caution that the misuse of over-the-counter cold and cough remedies can have serious side effects. There are a couple of reasons for staying away: inaccurate dosage instructions and compounds (pain relief/antihistamine) in which the amounts of each ingredient are not clear.

Sheppard does recommend the use of

nasal

saline solutions for a

stuffy nose

. "They're very helpful prior to feeding and sleeping," she says, but advises parents to ask a pharmacist for the most suitable brands for children. Parents can also clear nasal congestion in infants with a rubber suction bulb, she says.

When to see a doctor

If you don't get better, it's more than a cold, says Lemis, who says that patients typically describe the flu as "like being run over by a truck." If a child has a fever of 104 degrees, or 101 degrees in an infant under a year and if a fever does not respond to acetaminophen or ibuprofen, then it's time to visit a doctor. Likewise, if an infant's fever lasts more than 24 hours or a child's more than three days.

Just as important is if a fever returns after going away or if a patient's mental status changes from alert to lethargic. Sheppard advises to be attentive to other infections when recovering from a cold, such as an

ear infection

or pneumonia.

Other symptoms to pay attention to in children are listlessness, failure to make eye contact, and if they have difficulty breathing or they're inconsolable. Hydration is essential so a dry diaper for more than six hours or failure to urinate in older children is a red flag.

How to avoid it

To avoid the common cold, the most important factor is to practice good hand hygiene. That means washing hands with soap and warm water frequently during the day — before eating and after touching surfaces and doors. While hand sanitizers are helpful, washing with soap and water should be the first choice, says Trump. Along with that goes covering your mouth when you cough, not touching your face — eyes, nose, mouth — and stocking your pantry with fruit and

healthy foods

, says Hilliard. From

Bon Secours

, which reports a "brisk business" with flu-like illnesses right now, comes this advice: If you've been sick or are not feeling well, toss out your old toothbrush, wipe down handles and surfaces in your office, car and home, and use a sanitary wipe on children's toys. If possible, stay home if not feeling well and keep children home from school.

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