Cold and flu season strategies

A child's runny nose, a colleague's cough, a sneeze in the line behind you at the grocery store – it's cold and flu season again. Millions of Americans are infected with the flu each year. What's your best defense for dodging those nasty viruses? A flu shot and a few stay-healthy strategies.

A flu shot is your best defense

Colds are caused by hundreds of different viruses, making it impossible to manufacture a vaccine for protection. But the flu is unique, explains Navin Nayak, M.D., with Providence Medical Group-Sunnyside in Clackamas, Ore. “Only a few viruses cause influenza, so a vaccine can be very effective. A flu shot is the best way you can prevent and control the flu. It's better to keep from getting it in the first place, than trying to treat it after you're infected.”

Who should get a flu shot?

Providence Health Plan recommends a flu shot as the single best way to prevent the flu. A flu shot is especially important for those with a higher risk of complications, including people over 50, pregnant women, children 6 months to five years and anyone with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

Strategies for staying healthy

There is no cure for a cold or the flu. “All you can do to feel better is to rest and treat your symptoms while your body fights off the virus,” he says. In addition to getting a flu shot, Dr. Nayak reminds us that good hygiene habits are essential to protect yourself from getting and spreading viruses. He offers these easy stay-healthy strategies:

  • Wash your hands. Infectious diseases spread through direct contact with people and contaminated surfaces; viruses can survive for hours. The more often you wash your hands, the less likely you are to get sick.
  • Cover your cough. Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm, not your hands.
  • Don't touch your face. Germs spread when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Practice healthy habits. Eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly can boost your immune system to better fight off germs.
  • Stay home when you are sick. Adults can be contagious one day prior to becoming sick and for three to seven days after developing symptoms. Children may be contagious for longer than a week.

Symptoms: cold vs. flu

Colds are generally milder and more common than the flu. The symptoms of a cold typically include sneezing, muscle aches, runny nose, cough and a mild fever (less than 100°F). The flu tends to be more severe and sudden in its onset. Type C causes only mild illness similar to a common cold. Types A and B influenza viruses share the classic flu symptoms: sudden onset chills, high fever (possibly above 102°F), headache, muscle ache, nausea, loss of appetite and fatigue.

Antibiotics: when they can and can't help

When you feel sick, you want to feel better fast. But antibiotics aren't the answer for every illness. “Antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria,” explains Dr. Nayak. “They don't work against the viruses that cause colds or flu. In fact, overusing or misusing antibiotics can cause more harm than good.”

  • Bacteria are responsible for sinus infections, strep throat, ear infections and some pneumonia.
  • Viruses are responsible for the common cold, coughs, sore throat and the flu.

“Antibiotics can help you feel better if your illness is caused by a bacterial infection,” says Dr. Nayak. “Talk to your doctor for advice, he or she can determine whether antibiotics are appropriate for you. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can lead to germs that are resistant to antibiotics.”

Relief from your symptoms with over-the-counter medicines

Medicine can't cure a cold or the flu. However, over-the-counter medicine can help relieve some symptoms. The ingredients listed below are found in many cold/flu medicines. Read labels carefully. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) relieve aches and pains and reduce fever.
  • Antitussives with the active ingredient dextromethorphan (Robitussin) may help with a cough.
  • Oral decongestants with the active ingredient phenylephrine (Sudafed PE) can reduce congestion.