Fall is a prime time for seasonal illnesses. The drop in temperature, high winds and more rain can play havoc with immune systems, with elderly people and infants being particularly at risk. Anyone can be affected by seasonal weather changes, however, and knowing what the greatest risks are along with how to prevent them and what to do in an emergency provides peace of mind that you’ll cope.
Here are the top four culprits that can affect your family’s health during the slide into winter:
Flu tops off the list, with flu season beginning in early fall, peaking around January or February, and running through until April or May. Flu is a viral infection so it does not respond to antibiotics, which only work with bacterial diseases. A respiratory illness, it spreads easily from person to person and can be picked up from infected surfaces. The most common flu symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle and body aches
- Stuffy head and nose
- Coughs (can start as a dry cough but turn more serious)
- Fatigue or feeling weak
- Fever (102° or more)
Diarrhea and vomiting can also accompany flu, although this is more common in children than in adults. Anyone with reduced immunity who shows symptoms of flu should contact their doctor, and if you have green or yellow mucus, very severe headaches or difficulty breathing you should contact the emergency room without delay.
Allergies and Asthma
Fall is also the time when allergies can pounce, with allergic asthma and rhinitis being particularly common when mold spores build up on fallen leaves or in damp conditions in the home. Outdoor smoke from bonfires or barbecues can also bring on symptoms and cause restriction of the airway. Allergic rhinitis can usually be treated by over the counter medications like antihistamines, although in severe asthma cases further treatment may be needed and the emergency room can help.
Dangerous asthma symptoms to watch out for include:
- Sharp pains between shoulder blades, in the chest or stomach
- Swelling in the throat
- Acute shortness of breath
- Feeling faint or actual loss of consciousness
- Drowning sensations
- Blood in the sputum
- Lips or fingernails turning blue
Any of these symptoms may indicate serious developments that need emergency treatment. Under normal circumstances, your rescue inhaler will bring relief, but if symptoms last longer than a few days (or your normal remedies don’t bring relief), you should consult your doctor.
This is particularly common in fall and winter, especially among children. They are one of the main reasons parents take children to the doctor during fall. Both bacteria and viruses can cause ear infections, which often bring severe pain to children. The reason children get more ear infections than adults is because children have shorter eustachian tubes, where fluid can become trapped and bacteria grow.
If your child develops an ear infection it may be best to resist treatment for a couple of days to see if the infection heals on its own, especially in children older than 2 years. Antibiotics are often prescribed, but it’s possible for resistance to build up, making the treatment less effective. Of course, if you’re concerned or the pain is severe, you should consult your doctor without delay.
Good hygiene, such as proper hand washing and thorough household cleaning to keep surfaces hygienic can help with prevention.
Bronchitis, and bronchiolitis in the case of babies and young children, is common during the autumn and winter months. Typical symptoms include coughing, difficulty breathing and wheezing, and can last from a few days to several months.
Bronchitis happens when the lining of the lungs becomes inflamed, and if you are otherwise healthy you probably won’t need treatment. You should see a doctor if you feel very unwell, however.
Symptoms that need emergency treatment include:
- Persistent cough that lasts longer than 3 to 4 weeks
- High fever
- Shortness of breath or severe chest pains
- Dark or rust colored phlegm or the presence of blood
- Flu-type symptoms
- If any symptoms become worse or if you feel concerned
Bronchiolitis is a similar condition that appears in babies and young children, and can become worse as weather conditions deteriorate. For most children the symptoms are not severe and can include a runny nose, wheezing and a cough, similar to a heavy cold.
It could be an emergency, however, if you notice a bluish tinge to the lips or skin, breathing becomes fast, you can hear a crackly sound in the chest, or the patient has difficulty breathing, feeding or drinking.
Often, it’s hard to avoid catching typical fall maladies, and over-the-counter medications will usually see you through most of them. In an emergency situation, however, it’s best to get professional advice and appropriate treatment. Your nearest emergency room will be glad to help.