Cold and flu season often begins in October as the weather outside starts to turn cold. It can last until May. Each year, it’s important to prepare and protect your family from these illnesses.
While the cold and the flu are similar, they’re two different conditions. They’re both caused by viruses that are contagious. The cold is often mild, starts slow, and can last longer. The flu (influenza) is often more severe, appears suddenly, and lasts 3 to 7 days. If you got a flu shot, it lasts only 2 to 4 days and had milder symptoms.
Path to improved health
There are several things you can do to protect against getting sick. You may still get the cold and flu, but these can help prevent or lessen symptoms.
- Wash your hands often. This can help stop germs from spreading.
- Eat healthy, be active, and get enough sleep. These help to boost your immune system and keep your body strong.
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Think about all the germs you spread if you use your hands.
- Use antibacterial products to clean surfaces. These products help kill germs and should be used throughout your home. Common areas are tables and countertops. Don’t forget to clean high-touch surfaces such as door handles, light switches, and your child’s toys.
- Stay home when you’re sick. You can be contagious before you have symptoms and after you start to feel better. Avoid places where you may spread the virus.
- Stay away from people at risk. Try to avoid young children and babies, pregnant women, and people age 65 or older. Also try to stay away from anyone with a compromised immune system and people with a chronic condition, such as asthma. People in these groups are at higher risk for flu-related complications.
The best way to protect against the flu is to get the seasonal influenza vaccine. The AAFP recommends routine annual influenza vaccination for all persons 6 months and older without contraindications for this influenza season. You can get the vaccine at your doctor’s office, at a local pharmacy, or at the health department.
The flu vaccine is especially important for people who are at high risk for flu-related complications. This includes:
- Children younger than 2 years of age
- Adults 65 years of age and older
- Women who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or are breastfeeding
- People who have cancer or a weak immune system
- People living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
- People who work in a health care setting or are caregivers
Things to consider
Even with protection, you or your kids may end up with the cold or flu. There are ways to make yourself feel better while your body fights off the virus:
- Get plenty of rest. This is especially important if you have a fever. Rest helps your body fight infection.
- Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Smoke can make symptoms worse.
- Drink lots of fluids. Drink water, tea, and clear soups. Fluids help loosen mucus and prevent dehydration.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol can dehydrate you and make symptoms worse.
- Gargle with warm saltwater a few times a day to relieve a sore throat. Throat sprays or lozenges may help as well. Be careful with lozenges. They can be a choking hazard for small children.
- Use saline (saltwater) nose drops. They help loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin in your nose. These are safe to use on young children and babies. You also can use a bulb syringe to suction mucus out of the noses of young children and babies.
- Use a humidifier. This adds moisture to the air, which can help loosen chest and nasal congestion.
- Take medicine. Adults can take over-the-counter medicines. They won’t cure the cold or flu, but they can relieve some symptoms. Talk to the doctor before giving any medicine to children. Some medicines are harmful to babies and young kids. If you have the flu, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine. This can shorten the length of time you’re sick with the flu.
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor before getting the flu vaccine if you:
- Have Guillain-Barre syndrome.
- Have had severe allergic reactions to the vaccine.
- Have had adverse side effects to the vaccine.
Also, children younger than 6 months of age should not get the vaccine.
If your symptoms continue or you’re at high risk, contact your doctor right away. He or she can perform an exam and order tests to confirm or rule out the problem. Signs that you’re getting worse include:
- Prolonged, high fever
- Trouble breathing
- Skin color turning blue (babies)
- Severe chest pain
- Prolonged vomiting
- Severe pain in your face (sinuses)
- Swollen glands in your neck or jaw
- Earaches or drainage
- Changes in mental state, such as not waking up or acting confused or disoriented
Questions to ask your doctor
- What can I do to protect my baby, who is younger than 6 months of age, from the cold and flu?
- If my child gets the cold or flu, how can I protect myself and/or other children?
- When is the best time to get the flu vaccine?
- What types of problems could I have if I’m at high risk for flu-related complications?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.