To your health

    How do I know if I have a common cold or strep throat? What can I do to treat them?

    — Nicole Pivacek, Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore

    The transition from winter to spring usually brings nicer weather but unfortunately some illness too. The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection or viral rhinitis, can occur at any time of the year, but it generally has seasonal peaks in the fall and spring. Strep throat, on the other hand, occurs year-round

    The common cold is a viral infection and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages and throat), while strep throat is a bacterial throat infection. Both of these conditions are contagious. Strep throat is caused by the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes. It is primarily spread by coughing and sneezing, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth. On the contrary, there are over 200 different viruses known to be responsible for the common cold. No wonder it is so easy to catch.

    There is a clear difference between strep throat and the common cold. Symptoms of the cold include a stuffy nose, thin mucus discharge from the nose (runny nose), sneezing, an itchy or stuffed sensation in the ears, watery eyes, a slight cough, headaches, aches and pains, and in some cases, a low-grade fever and/or a sore or scratchy throat. On the other hand, strep throat has more serious symptoms. They include a red, sore throat with white patches; painful, difficult swallowing; bad breath; swollen, sore glands in the neck; or fever, nausea (and possibly vomiting), decreased appetite, rashes, muscle aches and pains, and fatigue.

    “You can usually easily tell the difference between a strep throat and a cold,” said Leslie Stillwater, a registered nurse who has been working for UCSD Healthcare for 16 years. “If you have strep throat, you will normally see some white pustules at the back of throat. Also, you usually do not get a sore throat with a cold. You can look at a sore throat, including strep throat, and a cold as two different conditions. A cold normally comes with common symptoms like a runny nose and watery eyes.”

    Though a doctor can normally tell whether you have strep throat, he or she will probably also run a throat culture to confirm the diagnosis.

    Almost all sore throats — including strep — will get better on their own in seven to 10 days. Strep throat improves more rapidly with antibiotics than without, but antibiotics do not affect the healing of sore throats caused by viral infections like a cold. Antibiotics can be given as a pill or a shot and include penicillin, erythromycin or cephalosporin. Symptoms begin to disappear after only a few doses of medication, but it is crucial that you take the antibiotics until you have finished the entire prescription. Untreated cases of strep throat can result in scarlet fever, kidney damage or rheumatic fever.

    There are no treatments to cure the common cold. However, a number of treatments can help relieve the symptoms, including pain relievers, decongestants, saline nose drops, vitamin C, cough drops and gargling salt water. Although many people think that taking high doses of vitamin C can reduce the chance of catching a cold, research has not confirmed this. Do not share drinking glasses or food. You should drink plenty of fluids, but be sure to avoid milk or milk products. Refrain from smoking, and if you are hoarse, talk as little as possible. If you are not better within a week, get a professional opinion.

    It is fairly easy to prevent both conditions. The most important way to prevent contracting or spreading both a cold or strep throat is by washing your hands frequently. Keep hands away from your nose, mouth and eyes. Minimize exposure to infected individuals.Taking these precautions greatly reduces your chances of catching either health ailments.

    If you would like to buy medication or see a doctor, excellent help is available at Student Health Services located on Library Walk. It is open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Wednesdays when they are open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. If your condition is not urgent, make an appointment by calling them at (858) 534-3300. To get more information on strep throat and the common cold, visit http://health.ucsd.edu/guide or http://studenthealth.ucsd.edu.

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