“We’ve had a number of cases of influenza A in town in the last two weeks and the usual respiratory viruses.”

It may feel like someone has been coughing in your office or school forever — maybe only a week or two, but for too long, regardless.

That’s because most upper respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses, which don’t disappear overnight.

“Usually if you get the influenza, you’re probably going to miss a week of work,” said Dr. Dan Lichty, a physician in the McPherson Hospital Family Medicine Clinic. “We’ve had a number of cases of influenza A in town in the last two weeks and the usual respiratory viruses.”

Lichty explained that these sorts of illnesses take time to fight because they can usually resolve themselves without the use of antibiotics.

“We do have some antiviral medications, but most of the time, we don’t use them for people who are at home and infected with a respiratory virus, which is what the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends,” Lichty said. “If they’re really sick and in the hospital, then we sometimes use those antiviral medications for viral illnesses.”

The CDC reports that the symptoms of the average upper respiratory infection — like influenza or the common cold — last between seven and 14 days.

Though many symptoms can be treated at home, some viruses can cause bacterial complications like bronchitis or pneumonia if not addressed by a doctor.

“A lot of times it takes a professional to sort that out because many times a person is weakened by a respiratory virus, and particularly the elderly will develop pneumonia after they are already weakened by the virus,” Lichty explained. “The pneumonia is usually bacterial and in an older person, they often need hospitalization when they get pneumonia. We have seen cases of pneumonia this year.”

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Because these illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

“There are misconceptions about what influenza is. Many people in our town think the flu is vomiting and diarrhea. It’s not,” Lichty said. “Influenza is a serious medical condition where you get fever, chills, headaches, muscle aches, cough and congestion and in most winters, this can be prevented by getting a flu shot. Even now, for people who have not received a flu shot, we recommend they get one for everyone who’s over six months of age.”

The flu is generally worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense, reports the CDC. Colds are usually milder and symptoms usually include a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations, but flu can have very serious associated complications.

The best methods to prevent the spread of viruses focus on minimizing contact.

“Wash your hands, and particularly, don’t rub your eyes or eat food with unwashed hands. Doctors and nurses avoid these illnesses because we are meticulous about not touching our mouths, our food, our noses or our eyes without washing our hands. That same protection can be used by others in the community,” Lichty said. “There are very few respiratory viruses that can be spread by coughing and sneezing farther that you can reach with your outstretched arm.”