Don't bug me! Dodge colds and flu and find relief

"New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control recommend all children up to 18 years old should receive a yearly flu shot."

A child’s runny nose, a colleague coughing, customers sneezing in the grocery line behind you – it’s cold and flu season again and conditions are ideal for germs and viruses to spread. With millions of Americans infected with the flu each year, dodging those nasty viruses can be difficult. Your best defense? 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 vaccine can be very valuable because there are only a few viruses that actually cause influenza.

"I recommend flu shots for all my patients," says Mhairi McFarlane, M.D., with Providence Medical Group – Sunnyside. "It is particularly important if you are in a high-risk group such as being pregnant during flu season, for young children, or having a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease. It is more effective to prevent rather than to treat the flu." Others who should receive the flu shot are the elderly, health care workers, those with young children and anyone else who wants to prevent getting the flu.

Stay healthy strategies

There is no cure for a cold or the flu. If you do get sick with a cold or flu virus then the virus needs to run its course. To protect yourself from getting sick, Dr. McFarlane offers the following advice:

  • 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 mouth. Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, 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.

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 are helpful only if an illness is caused by bacteria," explains Dr. McFarlane. "Colds and flus are caused by viruses so antibiotics will not be effective to treat them. Your doctor determines when an antibiotic is appropriate. We reserve antibiotics for when they are truly needed so that they will be more effective."

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.

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.