SIKESTON -- That runny nose, lingering cough and sore throat shouldn't be shrugged off too quickly these days.
In the midst of flu season and winter, health officials warn it's often difficult to know when a mild illness has become something more serious, especially when a cold, the flu, pneumonia and whooping cough all have very identical symptoms.
"The viruses and bacteria that cause these illnesses are around all year," said Gail Carlson, University of Missouri state health education specialist. "People are likely to be exposed in the winter because they spend more time inside and in closer contact with each other."
According to Autumn Grim, epidemiology specialist for the Southeastern District of the Missouri Department of Health office in Poplar Bluff, the flu season is pretty light right now. Currently there are 65 total confirmed flu cases in the state and roughly less than 10 in Southeast Missouri.
However, the department of health is seeing a lot of pertussis, or whooping cough, cases, Grim noted.
"In adults and adolescents, sometimes pertussis seems like it's the flu or even a cold, and that's why it's a problem," Grim noted.
So what should the ill look for?
According to Carlson, a cold almost always starts with a scratchy throat and stuffy nose. Within a few hours other symptoms appear -- sneezing, a mild sore throat, sometimes a minor headache and coughing.
Runny noses are a common feature of colds. On the other hand, fevers are not very common in adults with colds. Fever may occur in small children, but it usually doesn't rise above 103 degrees, Carlson said.
When someone has the flu, symptoms start suddenly and include a headache, sore throat, dry cough, runny nose, muscle aches, tiredness, weakness and high fever (102-104 F). Children may experience vomiting and diarrhea but this is not common in adults.
"If you've got the flu you'll know it," assured Karen Evans, registered nurse at Scott County Health Department. Sometimes the flu can turn into secondary infections, such as pneumonia, and require hospitalization, Evans pointed out.
Pneumonia symptoms include a high fever and cough that produces thick, rust-colored, greenish or yellowish mucus. Chills and stabbing chest pain when breathing are additional symptoms, Carlson said.
Typically a person who has the flu starts to feel better then becomes very ill. Those most vulnerable to pneumonia are children under 4, older adults and persons with weak immune systems, according to Carlson.
For pertussis, the only distinguishing factor is some will have the characteristic whooping cough, Grim said.
"They're coughing so hard, they literally cannot catch their breath, and some will throw up or pass out," Grim said, adding the only way to truly diagnose pertussis is to go to a physician.
Unlike a cold or the flu, pertussis is usually treated with an antibiotic; however, the approval of a booster for adolescents and adults by the Food and Drug Administration is on the horizon, Grim noted.
New antivirals are being used to treat the flu and a lot of physicians recommend rest and drinking lots of fluids, both Evans and Grim said.
Grim noted the department of health looks for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lift some of its earlier flu shot recommendations in January so more vaccine will be available for the public.
"And if you are sick, stay home. Don't go to church. Don't go to big gatherings where you can contaminate a lot of people," Evans suggested.
Good hand hygiene and staying away from people who are ill will help reduce the number of illnesses, Grim said. Of course, getting the flu shot, if possible, helps, and Grim also encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated.
But prevention remains the best advice. Grim said: "If people would just wash their hands, I'd be out of a job."