Tis the season for colds and sinus infections, and athletes are not immune to these common illnesses. In fact, infections of the upper respiratory tract, or URIs, are the most common illnesses in the general population, as well as athletes. Infections can target the throat and/or the sinuses, and can be referred to by many names. “Common cold, “ “strep throat,” and “sinusitis“ are just a few.
The symptoms of URI include a variety of complaints like cough, nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, and fever. Taking into account the history of the illness and how long it has been present helps to make the diagnosis. Occasionally, lab tests for strep, influenza, or mononucleosis may be ordered if those illnesses are suspected.
I often am asked for antibiotics for common URI illnesses. The problem is that most of these conditions are caused by viruses, so antibiotics—which treat bacterial infections—are not active against the bugs and do not help to treat or shorten the illness. Mostly, symptomatic treatment like a decongestant or cough suppressant in combination with good hydration and lots of sleep will get an athlete on the road to recovery. Occasionally, medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used for headache, sore throat, or muscle aches.
The best way to avoid a URI is to wash hands, cover mouths when coughing, and avoid others who are sick. You know, the things we’ve told our kids since they were old enough to listen. The problem is that athletes train and play in close contact with their teammates, so illnesses often spread quickly through the population. Athletes should avoid drinking from the same container as a sick teammate, and should consider getting an annual flu shot to prevent influenza. They should also get plenty of rest and avoid over-training, which decreases the body’s immune system and increases the risk of infection.
When an athlete gets sick, he or she should not practice or compete with a fever. Otherwise, most of the time an individual may participate if feeling well enough to do so. I use the “above the neck rule.” If the symptoms are in the throat, head, and sinuses, the athlete is okay to play. But if he or she is suffering from chills, body aches, or chest congestion, return to play is not recommended. Of note, the guidelines for mononucleosis are different, so one should consult a physician if that diagnosis has been made.
Happy playing! Now go wash your hands!