Complications of Colds and Flu

A bout of flu or a cold every year helps to detox the system – believe it or not, it’s actually a good thing! If your health isn’t compromised, and you help your body fight the infection by giving it the rest it needs, you should sail through. But what are the possible complications of colds and flu, and what can you do about them?

It is quite normal to have a cold or bout of flu every year. It’s a sign that the body is having a good detox, and is actually desirable. When I hear someone bragging that they have not had a cold or flu for many years, I am concerned that their body may not be able to detox, or that more serious disease may be developing.

In a healthy child or adult, a bout should last no longer than a few days, and one would expect to get better without any complications.

If one’s health is already compromised by pre-existing chronic illness, one is more at risk for complications, some of which may be serious. Young children, whose immune systems are still developing, and the elderly, whose immune systems may be compromised by many factors, are also more at risk.

COLDS

Colds are characterised by plenty of mucus, little or no fever, and generally a normal appetite.

In children the commonest complication is inner ear infection, also called otitis media. An older child may complain of a sore ear or deafness, as the passage behind the eardrum becomes congested with mucus. Babies and toddlers can’t pinpoint the source of their discomfort, and will cry, become restless, or be reluctant to lie down. Antibiotics are often prescribed for this condition, as the eardrum may appear red and inflamed. More often than not, the inflammation is caused by the same virus as caused the cold, and will resolve without antibiotics in 2 or 3 days.

Homeopathic remedies can be useful in resolving the discomfort more quickly:

  • Ferrum Phos is the first one to think of, for the cold as well as for the accompanying ear infection. Give it in low potency or as a tissue salt every half hour.
  • Oscillococcinum is good to give at the onset of any infection, as it can help to support the immune system, fight viruses and prevent secondary bacterial infections. Give one dose three times a day for 2 days.
  • Pulsatilla is often used when it seems that otitis develops with every cold. The child will typically need a lot of attention and have green-yellow mucus.
  • Belladonna, Chamomilla, Hepar Sulph, Lycopodium, Mercurius and Silica are all commonly used homeopathic remedies for ear infections, each prescribed according to the symptoms displayed by the individual child.
  • One can make some soothing ear drops by adding 2 drops of tea tree, clove or peppermint oil to 2 tablespoons of warm olive oil, and placing a few drops into the ear, with a plug of cottonwool.

If the pain escalates without resolving, the eardrum may be about to rupture and you need to see a doctor as soon as possible. If it does rupture, there will usually be a discharge of pus with relief of the pain. The eardrum usually heals within 6 weeks.

Sinusitis can also complicate a cold, but is more likely to occur in older children as the sinus cavities are not fully developed until about 12 years of age. The child will complain of pain and heaviness around the cheeks or forehead, and a fever may develop. A smelly, discoloured discharge of mucus often accompanies sinusitis. The homeopathic remedy Kali Bich is often the first one to think of in this situation. The symptoms indicating this remedy include dark yellow mucous discharge from the nose (often blood-streaked), pressure at the root of the nose, and thick, greenish postnasal discharge.

Other commonly used remedies include Hepar Sulph, Lycopodium, Mercurius, Nat Mur, Nux Vomica, Phosphorus and Pulsatilla. It is often effective, and much simpler, to give a homeopathic complex remedy, which may include several of the above remedies. These are presented as drops or tablets containing 6 – 10 remedies, only one of which may be the correct one for the child. The correct remedy will clear the symptoms, while the others in the formula are redundant and do no harm.

Adults are far more likely to develop sinusitis from a cold, especially if they smoke. The symptoms and treatment would be similar to those outlined above.

As an adult, if your lifestyle and dietary habits are not healthy, you will be more prone to developing a secondary bacterial infection, usually when the cold takes longer to clear and there is plentiful mucus which cultivates the infection. This can result in otitis media, pharyngitis and bronchitis. If you are ill with a high fever, you may need medical attention and even antibiotics – however, these complications can often be successfully treated by a skilled and attentive homeopath.

INFLUENZA OR FLU

Flu is characterised by body aches and pains, fever, loss of appetite, headache, a sore throat and a dry cough. It may last 2 – 7 days, and is best treated by bed rest, plenty of fluids and a light diet. Supplements of vitamin C 2 000 – 5 000 mg/day (for an adult) and echinacea 20 drops every hour or two can be very helpful. Oscillococcinum is also important, as outlined above. If a child with flu becomes unusually drowsy or floppy, refuses even liquids and develops a productive cough, the lips or the skin around the mouth turn blue or breathing becomes laboured, he or she may be developing pneumonia. This is a potentially serious complication, and may be caused by the flu virus, or pneumococcus, or by a secondary infection by a bacterium. The child will need to be medically assessed and possibly even hospitalised. Antibiotics may be prescribed, although they would only be effective against the bacteria.

An adult who is developing pneumonia may complain of chest pain, shortness of breath and a feeling that the ‘plug has been pulled’. Viral pneumonia is associated with production of scant, clear or blood-tinged sputum, while bacterial pneumonia usually produces plenty of yellow-green phlegm. The elderly are most prone to developing pneumonia, and may not even have a fever or cough, which can make it difficult to diagnose unless one thinks of it. The definitive diagnosis is by chest X-ray. Pneumonia can be successfully treated homeopathically, but the homeopath needs to be experienced and very attentive during the illness, as the remedies may need to be changed every few hours.

Inflammation of the brain, known as encephalitis, is an uncommon but serious complication of influenza in children. Signs and symptoms include headache, fever, irritability, an altered level of consciousness, hallucinations, muscle weakness, loss of sensation or paralysis, tremors and sometimes seizures. A child with suspected encephalitis needs medical attention urgently.

Reye’s syndrome is now a rare condition, mostly associated with the use of aspirin in children, e.g. during a bout of flu. Symptoms start with vomiting that lasts for several hours. Vomiting is followed by aggressive and irritable behaviour, then lethargy, loss of consciousness and seizures. Brain and liver damage may be permanent.

Bronchitis in adults is a secondary infection, usually caused by bacteria. The tubes of the lungs are inflamed and become constricted, causing wheezing and a productive cough. Homeopathic and herbal cough mixtures can afford relief. Natural antimicrobials such as echinacea, olive leaf extract, andrographis and oregano oil can be very useful in combating the infection.

Sinusitis may complicate a bout of flu, and can cause discomfort for several weeks. Acupuncture, with needles or soft laser, can be effective in relieving the pain and congestion. Oregano oil capsules (300 mg/day) are effective against viruses, fungi and bacteria, and particularly useful in treating sinusitis.

A heart attack can be triggered by a bout of flu, particularly in those who suffer with a pre-existing heart condition.

Flu can also aggravate other pre-existing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), impaired blood sugar control (e.g. diabetes) and cardiac failure. Careful monitoring is required when these patients are ill, as the complications can be serious.

In the elderly and in the very young, dehydration can be a serious complication. If the patient cannot take enough liquid by mouth, they may need life-saving intravenous fluids.

In conclusion, if you follow a healthy lifestyle and eat nutritious foods, a bout of flu or a cold every year helps to clear the system. It is important to give the body the rest it demands, and not push yourself to continue working. Listen to your body, and you should sail through without any complications.

 

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Complications of Colds and Flu

Dr David Nye
About The Author
- MB CHB (UCT), MFHOM (UK), DIP HOM (CEDH). He practises integrative medicine together with his wife, Dr Sandi Nye, in Pinelands Cape Town. As a registered medical doctor, homeopath and acupuncturist, he has a special interest in chronic illness, especially when conventional medicine fails to help. He uses a variety of modalities, tests and treatments in his quest to find the best solutions for each patient.