According to the Center for Disease Control, every year more than 200,000 people in the United States have to go to the hospital for flu-related problems. Colds are even more common, with Americans having 1 billion colds each year.
Understanding what causes colds and flu and why they make us sick is an important part of protecting yourself from infections.
Myths vs. Truths
Colds and flu are caused by viruses:
True. Viruses are tiny particles too small to see. They enter your body through openings such as your nose and mouth. Once inside, viruses attack the cells in your body that normally keep you healthy. Some of the symptoms you have when you are sick, such as a stuffy nose or fever, are your body’s ways of fighting off infection.
Viruses are everywhere! You can’t stop them from spreading:
False. That’s not true. You can help stop the spread of the cold and flu viruses if you know what to do. Cold and flu viruses spread by contact. When a sick person coughs or sneezes, virus-filled droplets float through the air. The most common way that flu viruses are spread is when someone who is sick with a cold or flu coughs or sneezes. But since a lot of people cough or sneeze into their hands, hand to hand contact is another easy way to pass along the flu virus. Another way that germs are spread is by an object. For example; if a sick person sneezes into their hand and then touches a door knob and then someone else touches the knob, then their nose or eyes, the virus can enter their body. Flu viruses can actually live on a surface such as this for 2-8 hours.
The best way to prevent the spread of viruses is by killing them. Warm, soapy water is a great virus-killer! By washing your hands, you lessen the chance of viruses spreading and entering your nose and eyes. Also, don’t rub your nose or eyes.
Colds and flu are no big deal. It doesn’t matter if I get sick:
False. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Students miss more than 22 million days of school every year just for colds alone. It’s true that many people with a cold or the flu will get better quickly. But others will have serious problems and may have to go to the hospital. People with conditions such as diabetes, asthma, or cystic fibrosis may get very sick from colds and flu.
The flu vaccine is the best flu protection available:
True. Although very few people will have minor side effects from the vaccine, it’s still the best way to prevent infection from the viruses that cause flu. Some people think getting a flu vaccine isn’t necessary or that it may make you sicker. Talk to your health care provider and parent(s) or guardian(s) about getting a flu vaccine.
Signs and Symptoms
How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?
It can be very hard to tell for sure if you have a cold or the flu. Both are caused by viruses; however the viruses aren’t the same. The symptoms for cold and flu are similar, but there are some important differences.
- Colds – milder symptoms; runny nose, scratchy throat, cough
- Flu – more symptoms especially fever, body aches, fatigue, and dry cough that happen suddenly
Read the table below to see a list of symptoms for colds and flu. You’ll notice that they share some symptoms, such as a stuffy nose. The biggest difference is that colds are usually mild and last a few days; flu symptoms are generally worse and last longer.
You may only have a few of these symptoms, or you may have more.
|How soon do symptoms appear?||Slowly||Usually suddenly|
|Headache||Rare or Mild||Moderate – Severe|
|Body aches||Mild||Moderate – Severe|
|Nausea or vomiting||Rarely||Sometimes|
|Diarrhea (loose BM’s)||Rarely||Sometimes|
|Loss of appetite (not hungry)||Sometimes||X|
How long does a cold last?
Depending on your age, a cold usually lasts between 2 and 14 days after symptoms start. Most people feel better in 1-2 weeks.
When should I call my primary care provider?
You should call your primary care provider if you have any of the problems below:
- Having a cough for 10 days or more
- Fever more than 103ºF, or a fever of greater than 100.4 ºF with chills
- Your symptoms are getting worse (especially if you have a fever of >101°F)
- Any fever for 3 or more days
- Coughing up phlegm that is yellow or green
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain or pressure, trouble breathing, or coughing blood
- Vomiting (throwing up) especially if you can’t keep anything down
- Ear pain or fluid draining from your ears
- Dizziness that comes on suddenly
- You have diabetes, asthma, or another medical condition that gets worse
Should I stay home from school if I have a cold or the flu?
Most health care providers agree that anyone who has a fever and/or symptoms that could be contagious such as a productive cough with mucous, diarrhea, vomiting or fatigue, should stay home. Talk to your parent(s) or guardian(s) if you don’t feel well enough to go to school. It’s important to get enough rest and stay hydrated (you’ll need to drink plenty of fluids) when you have a cold or flu. Staying home from school also stops the virus that causes colds and flu from spreading.
When can I go back to school after the cold or flu?
Many schools have their own rules about when you should return to school after being sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that anyone with cough and fever stay home from school for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever.
If you’re feeling better, but then get sick again with a fever or bad cough, call your primary care provider right away.
The best way to fight colds and flu is to not get them in the first place! Here are some tips for protecting yourself and preventing the spread of the viruses that cause colds and flu.
- Get vaccinated! The flu vaccine is a shot or nasal spray that protects your body from getting the flu virus. It’s the best flu protection there is. See your health care provider or ask your parent(s) or guardian(s) about getting the flu shot.
- Avoid sick people. Though this may be hard, avoiding people who are sick with cold or flu may prevent you from getting infected.
- Don’t share. Avoid sharing food, utensils, glasses, water bottles, lip balm, and other things that could pass viruses.
- Wash your hands. Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before you eat and after you cough or sneeze to stop the spread of viruses. Don’t rub your eyes and nose if you haven’t just washed your hands.
- Sneeze/cough the right way. Sneezing or coughing into your bare hands can spread cold and flu-causing viruses. Sneeze or cough into a tissue or the inside of your elbow to prevent the spread of infection.
YOU can help your body fight off infection by boosting your immune system.
- Get plenty of sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a good, balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Lower your stress level
- Stop smoking and avoid people who smoke
What should I do to get better?
If you are tired of being sick, you’re not alone. Having a cold or flu is never fun, but there are some things you can do to help yourself feel better.
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of fluids, especially water (at least 8-10 glasses/day)
- Use a cool mist humidifier/vaporizer to add moisture to the air
- Get plenty of rest
- Don’t smoke and avoid people who smoke
- Don’t drink alcohol
What medicine should I take if I have a cold or flu?
There are a lot of different kinds of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that are sold at pharmacies and grocery stores. Although OTC medicines can’t cure a cold or flu, they can sometimes make you feel better by helping to treat some of your symptoms. It’s important to talk to your health care provider, parent(s), or guardian(s) about your symptoms so they can help you choose the best type of medicine for you. Remember, children under 12 shouldn’t take OTC medicine unless recommended by a health care provider.
Here are a few things to think about before you choose an over-the-counter medicine:
- Tell your health care provider what medicines, herbs, vitamins or other supplements you are taking and if you have any health conditions such as high blood pressure.
- Know your symptoms and choose the medicine that treats only those symptoms.
- Read the label on the medicine and follow the directions. Be sure to take the right amount of medicine for your height, weight, and/or age at the right times. For example, some medicine is safe to take more than once a day, while other medicine is meant to be taken only once a day.
- Know the side effects. The medicine’s label will also list the possible side effects. Some OTC medications cause drowsiness or can’t be taken with other medicine.
- Do NOT take Aspirin or Aspirin-containing products if you have the flu.
Types of Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicines
There are several different types of OTC medicines (medicine you can buy without a prescription) that can lessen the symptoms of the common cold and the flu; however, check with your health care provider first. Over-the-counter medicine may help to take away symptoms temporarily but there is nothing you can buy that will “cure” your symptoms. If you are taking a medication with more than one ingredient, be careful to avoid taking too much acetaminophen or other drugs.
|OTC or non-prescription medicine:||What symptoms it may help treat:|
|Analgesic (Examples: Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen) Check the dosage and warning information on the label. Do not use more than recommended amount in 24 hours.||Aches and pains/fever|
|Decongestants (Oral) Examples: Sudafed®, Mucinex® or generic phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine and (Nasal sprays) are often used for cold symptoms. Examples: Simply Saline, Atrovent HFA®, Atrovent® or generic ipratropium bromide (2 sprays of 0.06% in each nostril 3 times a day for 4 days). Never use these products for more than 3-4 days because they can cause symptoms of rebound. Avoid oral meds such as Sudafed® if you have high blood pressure.||Lessens nasal discharge|
|Suppressants/Antitussives (Examples: Robitussin® DM, Delsym® or generic brand (Dextromethorphan (DXM or DM)) or honey, only if over 1 year of age)||Cough|
|Antihistamines (Example: Benadryl® or generic diphenhydramine or generic chlorpheniramine) These medicines cause drowsiness. Do not take and then drive.||Lessens nasal congestion and congestion|
|Lozenges/hard candy/honey||Soothes sore throat|
Do antibiotics help treat the common cold?
No. Antibiotics are medications prescribed by health care providers to treat infections caused by bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Taking an antibiotic will not treat colds. Sometimes people will get a bacterial infection such as sinusitis along with a cold. Never take an antibiotic unless your HCP prescribes it.
Is there any treatment for the flu?
The best way to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated and to stay away from people who are sick with flu symptoms. Anti-viral medicine such as Tamiflu®, Xofluza®, Relenza®, and Rapivab® are all prescription treatments that may be prescribed, especially if a person is at risk for serious complications such as asthma or diabetes from the flu. Antiviral medicines work best if taken within the first 2 days of an illness. Tamiflu® is the only pill (oral prescription medicine) that’s approved by the FDA to treat both children and adults who have the flu. Xofluza is another pill that is approved for us in children 12 years of age and older for treatment of flu symptoms. Relenza® is a powder that is inhaled and Rapivab® is only given by intravenous (through a vein). It’s important to let your health care provider know if you’re taking other medications, have a chronic disease(s) such as asthma, blood, kidney, liver, heart or lung disorders, etc. or if you have any allergies.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that anyone 6 months of age or over should receive the flu vaccine every year, by the end of October. In addition, anyone who has a medical condition that puts them at risk of complications from the flu should make it a high priority to get vaccinated. If you have a chronic health condition such as asthma and become sick with the flu, call your health care provider right away to see if you need to take an antiviral medicine such as Tamiflu®.