Steer clear of colds and flu this season. Plus, download our simple tips for staying healthy
Steering Clear of Colds and Flu This Winter
Winter inevitably brings unwanted illnesses–you guessed it, colds and dreaded influenza viruses. The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to reduce your family’s likelihood of getting sick. Take note and learn how to prevent illness.
Americans come down with one billion colds a year. And approximately 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu during each flu season, which typically lasts from November to March. There is also an increased risk of asthma attacks with cold air, and a cold or flu can lead to asthma flare-ups.
Cold vs. Flu: What’s the Difference?
Although colds and flu are both highly contagious infections of the respiratory tract––the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs––they are caused by different types of viruses. Unlike colds, flu strikes hard and fast; symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and more intense. If you’ve ever had the flu, you know it can knock you out and send you under the covers in misery for days at a time. Flu seasons are unpredictable, and some can be severe. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu and 200,000 people are hospitalized for seasonal flu-related complications each year. The CDC also reports that over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, flu-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 in a single season. Colds are usually much milder. You are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose and limited body aches when you have a cold. So while you may not feel great, armed with enough tissues you can still pursue most daily activities.
Both colds and flu viruses spread easily from person to person, usually when someone who is sick coughs or sneezes. But when it comes to flu viruses, you’d better roll up your sleeve. Getting a seasonal flu shot each year is the best ways to prevent infection. Who should get vaccinated? As of February 2010, the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine each year. For the 2011-2012 vaccine, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chose three influenza viruses based on recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), one of which is the 2009 H1N1 virus.Flu vaccination:
- Lowers the likelihood of infection in the first place
- Prevents flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, dehydration and aggravation of other health problems like asthma or diabetes
- Reduces flu-related doctor and hospital visits
- Decreases ear infections (otitis media) among children
Here are some simple measures you and your kids can take to reduce your and your family’s risk of coming down with these common, winter-related ailments:
- Wash hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds (some people recommend singing Happy Birthday twice). You might want to keep a travel-size bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy for occasions when you can’t get to a sink––for example, after riding the subway or pumping gas.
- Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, not your hands.
- Try to limit exposure to those who are infected.
- Resist rubbing your eyes and face and throw away used tissues.
- Maintain healthy habits through the winter months. Getting plenty of rest and exercise, sticking to a well-balanced healthful diet and staying hydrated by drinking non-caffeinated beverages (water is your best bet) can help ensure your immune system—your body’s natural defense—stays strong so that even if you do get sick, you may be able to fight the infection faster.
- At your workplace, consider disinfecting your phone and computer keyboard and be sure to wash your hands after touching shared doorknobs or pushing elevator buttons. And if you’re feeling sick, stay home to avoid spreading the illness to others.
In addition to the seasonal flu vaccine, antiviral medications, which interfere with viruses’ abilities to reproduce, can be used to treat and prevent seasonal flu. However, to work properly, they must be taken within two days of your first symptoms. Antivirals are available with a prescription. Your health care professional may recommend this medication to prevent a flu infection from spreading. Antivirals can help contain the virus in certain settings, such as by preventing family members from passing the flu to one another in a household, or in the workplace. If you already have symptoms, they can shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days.
Common remedies should you get sick.
Most of the time, colds and the flu simply need to run their course, but there are things you can do to ease your symptoms. Here are some other things to keep in mind:
- Gargle with salt water to soothe a sore throat.
- Use a humidifier to moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing. Be sure to clean the filter often so that mold doesn’t grow.
- Choose the right over-the-counter medication for symptom relief and be sure to read the label. Popular supplements like vitamin C, Echinacea and zinc lozenges may make you feel better, but their ability to prevent or treat cold or flu symptoms is not backed by scientific evidence. Ask your pharmacist for guidance.
- Let your body rest; get plenty of sleep when you're ill with a cold or flu and encourage your children to do the same if they become sick.
As always, talk with your health care professional.
© 2012. National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. All rights reserved. All content provided in this guide is for information purposes only. Any information herein relating to specific medical conditions, preventive care and/or healthy lifestyles does not suggest individual diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for medical attention.