Cold and flu viruses are always around. So why do we seem to be especially vulnerable during the fall and winter months?
For the most part, it’s because we spend more time indoors, and the viruses that cause the sniffles, congestion, and body aches of a cold or the flu can spread more easily from person to person.
You can fight back by adopting healthy habits and by using medicines and vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to combat and help prevent the flu.
Symptoms of Colds and Flu
Most viral respiratory infections, like a cold, come and go within a few days, with no lasting effects. But some cause serious health problems. In addition, people who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more prone to respiratory illnesses and more severe complications than nonsmokers.
Colds. Symptoms of colds usually are a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. Other symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery eyes. There is no vaccine to prevent colds, which come on gradually and often spread through everyday contact.
Flu. Symptoms of the flu include fever, headache, chills, dry cough, body aches, fatigue, and general misery. Like the viruses that cause a cold, the flu virus can cause a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Young children also may experience nausea and vomiting.
The flu typically comes on suddenly and lasts longer than a cold. Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets, when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. You also can get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated every year.
Flu season in the United States may begin as early as October and can last as late as May, and generally peaks between December and February.
Get Vaccinated Against the Flu
With rare exceptions, everyone ages 6 months and older should be vaccinated against flu. The vaccine is an important step for reducing flu illnesses and preventing flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
It’s best to be vaccinated by October, although vaccination into January and beyond can still offer protection. You need to get vaccinated every year because flu viruses can change from year to year and the vaccines may need to be updated to protect against new strains of the virus that circulate among people. Also, the protection provided by the previous year’s vaccine will dimish over time and may be too low to provide protection into the next year. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk for developing serious complications from flu. These people include:
- Children younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than 2 years old
- Pregnant women
- People with certain chronic health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease)
- People 65 or older
Vaccination is especially important for health care workers, and those who live with or care for people at high risk for serious flu-related complications.
Babies younger than 6 months are too young to get a flu vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that pregnant women and parents of infants should get a flu shot to help protect themselves and their babies during those early months. Also, all the baby’s caregivers and close contacts should be vaccinated.
Practice Healthy Habits
Wash your hands often. Teach children to do the same. Both colds and flu can be passed through contaminated surfaces, including the hands. Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
Limit exposure to infected people. Keep infants away from crowds for the first few months of life.
- Eat a balanced diet
- Get enough sleep
- Reduce stress
What to Do if You’re Already Sick
Colds usually have to run their course. Gargling with salt water may relieve a sore throat. And, a cool-mist humidifier may help relieve stuffy noses.
Here are other steps to consider:
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out what will work best to help relieve or treat your symptoms.
- Limit exposing other people to your virus.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Stay hydrated and rested; avoid alcohol and caffeinated products.
In addition to over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, there are FDA-approved prescription medications for treating flu. Also, a cold or flu may lead to a bacterial infection (such as bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia) that could require antibiotics.
How to Safely Take OTC Medicines for Cold or Flu Symptoms
Read medicine labels carefully and follow the directions. People with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, should check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a new cough or cold medicine.
Choose the right OTC medicines for your symptoms.
- Nasal decongestants help unclog a stuffy nose.
- Cough suppressants help relieve coughs.
- Expectorants help loosen mucus.
- Antihistamines help stop a runny nose and sneezing.
- Pain relievers can help ease fever, headaches, and minor aches.
Check the medicine's side effects. Medications can cause drowsiness and interact with food, alcohol, dietary supplements, and other medicines. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about every medical product and supplement you are taking.
Check with a health care professional before giving medicine to children.
See a doctor if you aren't getting any better.
Signs of trouble can include:
- A cough that disrupts sleep
- A fever that won’t respond to treatment
- Increased shortness of breath
- Face pain caused by a sinus infection
- High fever, chest pain, or a difference in the mucus you’re producing, after feeling better for a short time
With young children, be alert for high fevers and for abnormal behavior such as unusual drowsiness, refusal to eat, crying a lot, holding the ears or stomach, and wheezing.