In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is prime time for
colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses.
While contagious viruses are active year-round, fall and
winter are when we're all most vulnerable to them. This is due in large part to
people spending more time indoors with others when the weather gets cold.
Most respiratory bugs come and go within a few days, with no
lasting effects. However, some cause serious health problems. Although symptoms
of colds and flu can be similar, the two are different.
Cold vs. flu
Colds are usually distinguished by a stuffy or runny nose
and sneezing. Other symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery
eyes. No vaccine against colds exists because they can be caused by many types
of viruses. Often spread through contact with mucus, colds come on gradually.
Flu comes on suddenly, is more serious, and lasts longer
than colds. The good news is that yearly vaccination can help protect you from
getting the flu. Flu season in the United States generally runs from November
Flu symptoms include fever, headache, chills, dry cough,
body aches, fatigue, and general misery. Like colds, flu can cause a stuffy or
runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Young children may also experience
nausea and vomiting with flu.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- More than 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized
from flu-related complications each year, including 20,000 children younger
than age five.
- Flu-associated deaths number in the thousands each year.
Between 1976 and 2006, the estimated number of flu-related deaths every year
ranged from about 3,000 to about 49,000.
Flu vaccine, available as a shot or a nasal spray, remains
the best way to prevent and control influenza. The best time to get a flu
vaccination is from October through November, although getting it in December
and January is not too late. A new flu shot is needed every year because the
predominant flu viruses may change every year.
All people six months of age and older should be vaccinated.
However, you should talk to your health care professional before getting
vaccinated if you
- have certain allergies, especially to eggs
- have an illness, such as pneumonia
- have a high fever
- are pregnant
Flu vaccination for health care workers is urged because
unvaccinated workers can be a primary cause of outbreaks in health care
Certain people are more at risk for developing complications
from flu; they should be immunized as soon as vaccine is available. These
- people 65 and older
- residents of nursing homes or other places that house people
with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease
- adults and children with heart or lung disorders, including
- adults and children who have required regular medical
follow-up or hospitalization during the preceding year because of chronic
metabolic diseases (including diabetes), kidney dysfunction, a weakened immune
system, or disorders caused by abnormalities of hemoglobin (a protein in red
blood cells that carries oxygen)
- Young people ages 6 months to 18 years receiving long-term
aspirin therapy, and who as a result might be at risk for developing Reye's
syndrome after being infected with influenza
This year's flu shot
Note that only one vaccine is needed for the 2010-2011
During last flu season, two different vaccines were needed;
one to prevent seasonal influenza and another to protect against the 2009 H1N1
flu virus. This year's seasonal flu vaccine protects against three strains of
influenza, including the 2009 H1N1 flu virus.
Also, a vaccine specifically for people 65 years and older
is available this year. Called Fluzone High-Dose, this vaccine induces a
stronger immune response and is intended to better protect the elderly against
This vaccine -- which was approved by FDA in 2009 -- was
developed because the immune system typically becomes weaker with age, leaving
people at increased risk of seasonal flu-related complications that may lead to
hospitalization and death.
Wash your hands often. Teach children to do the same. Both
colds and flu can be passed through coughing, sneezing, and contaminated
surfaces, including the hands. CDC recommends regular washing of your hands
with warm, soapy water for about 15 seconds.
FDA says that while soap and water are undoubtedly the first
choice for hand hygiene, alcohol-based hand rubs may be used if soap and water
are not available. However, the agency cautions against using the alcohol-based
rubs when hands are visibly dirty. This is because organic material such as
dirt or blood can inactivate the alcohol, rendering it unable to kill bacteria.
Try to limit exposure to infected people. Keep infants away
from crowds for the first few months of life. This is especially important for
premature babies who may have underlying abnormalities such as lung or heart
Practice healthy habits
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise. It can help the immune system better fight off the
germs that cause illness.
- Do your best to keep stress in check.
Also, people who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand
smoke are more prone to respiratory illnesses and more severe complications
Usually, colds and flu simply have to be allowed to run
their course. You can try to relieve symptoms without taking medicine. 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:
- First, call your doctor. This will ensure that the best
course of treatment can be started early.
- If you are sick, try not to make others sick too. Limit your
exposure to other people. Also, cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough
or sneeze, and throw used tissues into the trash immediately.
- Stay hydrated and rested. Fluids can help loosen mucus and
make you feel better, especially if you have a fever. Avoid alcohol and
caffeinated products. These may dehydrate you.
- Know your medicine options. If you choose to use medicine,
there are over-the-counter (OTC) options that can help relieve the symptoms of
colds and flu.
If you want to unclog a stuffy nose, then nasal
decongestants may help. Cough suppressants quiet coughs; expectorants loosen
mucus so you can cough it up; antihistamines help stop a runny nose and
sneezing; and pain relievers can ease fever, headaches, and minor aches.
In addition, there are prescription antiviral medications
approved by FDA that are indicated for treating the flu. Talk to your health
care professional to find out what will work best for you.
- Be wary of unproven treatments. It's best to use treatments
that have been approved by FDA. Many people believe that products with certain
ingredients -- vitamin C or Echinacea, for example -- can treat winter
Unless FDA has approved a product for treatment of specific
symptoms, you cannot assume the product will treat those symptoms. Tell your
health care professionals about any supplements or herbal remedies you use.
- Read medicine labels carefully and follow directions. People
with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, should check with
a health care professional or pharmacist before taking a new cough and cold
medicine. Some medicines can worsen underlying health problems.
- Choose appropriate OTC medicines. Choose OTC medicines
specifically for your symptoms. If all you have is a runny nose, use only a
medicine that treats a runny nose. This can keep you from unnecessarily
doubling up on ingredients, a practice that can prove harmful.
- Check the medicine's side effects. Certain medications such
as antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Medications can interact with food,
alcohol, dietary supplements, and each other.
The safest strategy is to make sure your health care
professional and pharmacist know about every product you are taking, including
nonprescription drugs and any dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals,
- Check with a doctor before giving medicine to children. Get
medical advice before treating children suffering from cold and flu symptoms.
Do not give children medication that is labeled only for adults.
Don't give aspirin or aspirin-containing medicines to
children and teenagers. Children and teenagers suffering from flu-like
symptoms, chickenpox, and other viral illnesses shouldn't take aspirin.
Reye's syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal disease found
mainly in children, has been associated with using aspirin to treat flu or
chickenpox in kids. Reye's syndrome can affect the blood, liver, and brain.
Some medicine labels may refer to aspirin as salicylate or
salicylic acid. Be sure to educate teenagers, who may take OTC medicines
without their parents' knowledge.
When to See a Doctor
See a health care professional if you aren't getting any
better or if your symptoms worsen. Mucus buildup from a viral infection can
lead to a bacterial infection.
With 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.
Signs of trouble for all people can include:
- a cough that disrupts sleep
- a fever that won't go down
- increased shortness of breath
- face pain caused by a sinus infection
- worsening of symptoms, high fever, chest pain, or a
difference in the mucus you're producing, all after feeling better for a short
Cold and flu complications may include bacterial infections
(e.g., bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia) that could require
Remember: While antibiotics are effective against bacterial
infections, they don't help against viral infections such as the cold or flu.
Get Set for Winter Illness Season
Health experts offer tips on staying healthy during cold and flu season