A COLD OR MORE SERIOUS? Viral, bacterial and when to seek treatment.

The other day, one of the usual participants at my Pilates class who had been out for a few weeks due to illness returned.  She said she was finally feeling better.  She had a major upper respiratory viral infection and just couldn’t shake it.

Wash your hands poster CDC - Wellbee
Credit: CDC/ Mary Hilpertshauser [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I asked how she knew it was viral and she said because she had drainage, but wasn’t coughing a lot.  Along with that, she added that she felt miserable and fatigued, all typical of a virus.  I ragged on her a bit and said sometimes you really can’t tell unless you get a culture.  And, there are some really important reasons why you need to know the difference.

If it had been bacterial, my friend should have been treated with antibiotics.  The damage that can be done with an untreated bacterial infection like Streptococcus can make you really ill and possibly kill you – and I am not being dramatic.

Think of Jim Henson, the beloved creator of the Muppets, who died from organ failure as result of an initially untreated Group A Streptococcal infection.  Think of ElaineR.N. (me) who became gravely ill with Rheumatic Fever when she was a girl of — 30 years — because of an untreated strep infection.  At the time, I didn’t think it was that serious, until it was!!

There are two types of strep, Group A and Group B, but I will only be talking Group A in this post.

What is Group A Streptococcus?

GAS (an official abbreviation and not me being cutesy) is a bacteria that can be easily spread to cause a variety of infections. Most are treatable, such as a strep throat or impetigo, a skin infection. However, and this is official from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these bacteria can cause severe and life-threatening diseases.

As a result of my experience, I tend to be preachy and believe that it is best to make certain before being dismissive. Here are some things to help you to better know when to see the doctor, or not, about your “cold”:

Is your throat really sore and do you have problems swallowing?

Sore throats can be caused by many things, such as allergies, viruses, post-nasal drip, irritants such as cigarette smoke, or bacteria. If the sore throat began quickly and there is severe pain when you swallow, that is one indication it may be strep.

Do you have red or swollen tonsils?

You may need someone else to look down your throat for you to see what is going on and PLEASE don’t cough when they do. Also, the explorer should wash their hands immediately after! While your trusted observer is looking, he or she should note if you have tiny red spots on the roof of your mouth in the back (the hard palate), as that is another sign.

Is your temperature above 101 degrees Fahrenheit?

Take your temperature!  A fever often occurs with a GAS infection, so that is an indication.

Are you nauseated and vomiting, have a headache, body aches, rash or swollen lymph nodes?

These symptoms also indicate a possible GAS infection.  (Lymph nodes are glands near the base of your throat on both sides, though only one side may be swollen.)

See your health care professional if you think you have GAS infection or even if you aren’t certain, as there is a simple throat swab culture that can make the determination. If so, you will be prescribed an antibiotic. The culture may not come back positive, so you may need to be retested. Be sure to finish the prescription and not stop just because you are feeling better.

Importantly, rest!  And keep it from spreading!

Wash your hands frequently and don’t share anything you put in your mouth, like snacks, spoons, forks or knives. Cover your mouth when you cough and cover your nose and mouth if you sneeze. Phones, iPads, etc. should be wiped with an antibacterial cloth before sharing too. One thing I do is to wipe down the doorknobs, water taps, and toilet flusher handles when I have an ill child with me. I do that GAS or not. If you are not an antibacterial cloth type of person, then use soap and water. This isn’t a debate about antibacterial use; just an emphasis on how to not spread a GAS infection throughout the household.

Doctor or Not??

Back to my Pilates friend: Was she right not to go to the doctor? As it turned out, she had a viral infection. However, she had been so convinced she didn’t need to be checked out that she may have ignored a reason to be more concerned. Also, to note, there are variations of symptoms. When I got Rheumatic Fever, my throat was never that sore and most of my discomfort was in my sinuses. Now, I tend to be overly cautious with others who  mention to me that they have a sore throat and are feeling badly. Not everyone needs to go running to get checked, but that is his or her decision because I say better to be sure!

For more information: http://www.cdc.gov/groupAstrep/about/faqs.html



  1. I never knew until I had kids that vomiting is a sign of strep throat, a surprisingly common one. Now we go for a test almost any time the kids toss their cookies, especially if it’s accompanied by a sore throat.


    1. Smart move. Better to know and get treated then to let it ride and have one of
      your kids get extremely ill. Glad you shared!


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