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Beyond the Flu and Bird Flu

Find out what's really ailing you this cold and flu season.

Coronavirus

Remember the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare of 2002-2003? SARS is a coronavirus, also known as a type of virus that is typically associated with nasal congestion and sore throats. SARS actually causes symptoms similar to pneumonia and can be spread through contact with infected saliva or respiratory droplets, which are produced when someone with SARS coughs, sneezes, or speaks. SARS was first found in Asia, North America, and Europe in late 2002 and early 2003.

"Coronaviruses have gotten lost in the shuffle because of the importance of influenza," Walsh says. "The original ones were identified quite a number of years ago and are known to cause colds in adults and colds, bronchitis and pneumonia in kids, but because they are so hard to study, people lost interest and went off to study things they could get their hands around," he says. Research is ongoing to find effective treatment for SARS. As it stands, mild cases may be treated at home, like the flu or a cold. Severe cases require hospitalization to treat related breathing problems.

Like RSV, the best prevention is vigilant hand washing, experts say.

Parainfluenza

Most croup cases are caused by a parainfluenza virus. The disease is transmitted by airborne droplets from an infected child's cough. "There are three different strains that are fairly frequent and they also cause disease in older individuals to a modest degree and on occasion, can cause pneumonia," Walsh says. These viruses tend to circulate during the fall and winter. Croup is a viral infection of the voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea), and usually the first indication is a cough that sounds like the bark of a seal.

"For most people, [specific diagnoses] probably don't make that much of a difference," Schachter says. "These viruses all give very similar respiratory pictures, but they are of interest to doctors and public health officials because some of them are more virulent than others," he says. "For the otherwise healthy person who gets a cold in the middle of winter knowing that they have a parainfluenza virus or RSV probably is not that important."

Haemophilus Influenzae (H flu)

Haemophilus influenzae (H flu) are common bacteria that are responsible for a wide variety of infections in children.

"It can cause sinusitis, ear infections, and meningitis in kids and can worsen chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adults." He says. Meningitis is a potentially fatal inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and the spinal cord. "It's important to diagnose H flu because we do have a vaccine and since it is a bacteria, it's treatable with antibiotics," Schachter says. "If suspected, it can be cultured and treated rapidly," he says.

Summing It All Up

"I tend to look at symptoms," says James Sears, MD, a pediatrician at the Sears Family Pediatric Practice in San Clemente, Calif., and author of several books including The Baby Book.

"If a baby has a cold, I don't care if it's RSV or a coronavirus if he or she is handling it well," he explains. "Many babies with RSV don't end up in the hospital, so I look at the baby and if he or she isn't that sick, I don't care what is causing it," he tells WebMD.

"On the other hand," he says, "when they are having a hard time breathing and we can show RSV with testing, it can help us understand what the baby is going through."

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