Fall and winter typically usher in a long cold and flu season, with miserable symptoms that can sideline you for days. With the December holidays around the corner and all the hustle and bustle going on, you don’t have time to be sick! Read on for more information about these common respiratory illnesses, and what you can do to fight them off.
Both colds and influenza, or the “flu,” are caused by viruses, said Heather Rosen, MD, Director of Urgent Care at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Colds are a family of more than 200 viruses,” she explained. “Adults generally get about two to three colds a year, while children can get as many as five to seven.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza viruses are more cunning – and more deadly. While there are only three main types of flu (A, B and C), the different types can mutate into any number of flu viruses that affect human beings. Influenza attacks about 5-20 percent of the U.S. population each year, causing more than 200,000 hospitalizations due to life-threatening complications such as pneumonia. About 23,000 people die of influenza and its complications each year.
Symptom-wise, it’s might seem difficult to tell whether you have a cold or the flu, said Dr. Rosen. “The only sure way to tell is with a throat swab, which is a laboratory test,” she explained.
In general, though, symptoms of a cold are less severe and more likely to attack the upper respiratory system (nose, throat, upper airway), while influenza causes a more systemic illness and often tackles the lower respiratory tract, including the lungs (see sidebar). “I always know when someone comes into my office with the flu versus just a cold,” said Marc Leavey, MD, an internist who practices in the Baltimore, Maryland area. “If they feel like they’re going to die, it’s the flu.”
Both colds and flu are spread person to person by droplet transmission, added Dr. Leavey. That means that oral or nasal secretions from an infected person can land in your nose and mouth when the person coughs, sneezes or even talks. Less often, you can pick up a cold or the flu by touching an object or surface (think shopping cart handles, door knobs) that has viral secretions on it.
How to fight against these respiratory invaders? Here are some suggestions from the docs:
Gut It Out – “It’s a fact that we live among viruses, bacteria and fungi,” said Holly Lucille, ND, RN, who practices in West Hollywood, California. “But we have this incredible immune system, over 80 percent of it in our gut. Taking a daily probiotic with a high colony forming count to keep our gut in good shape is crucial.”
Get a Humidifier – One of the reasons colds and flu are so prevalent in the colder months is that the colder, drier weather dehydrates the mucous membranes in the nose and throat, said Vincent Pedre, MD, New York City internist. “This interferes with the natural protection of the membranes, allowing viruses to take hold,” he explained.
A bonus to increasing your household humidity to between 40 and 60 percent, especially if someone in the household is already sick: A recent study found that higher humidity levels decreased the survival time of infectious flu droplets released by coughing.
Do Your D – Vitamin D levels drop in the winter months when people are not outside in the sun as often, said Dr. Pedre. “Low vitamin D levels make more system more susceptible to viral infections.”
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In fact, a Harvard study showed that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 36 percent more likely to have upper respiratory infections compared to those with the highest D levels. Many health experts suggest taking 1000 -2000 IU of vitamin D3 each day for immune system health.
Wash Your Hands – Especially before eating or shaking hands, advises Dr. Leavey. “Use your common sense,” he added. “You don’t have to go crazy with the antimicrobial hand sanitizers. But hand washing at appropriate times is the single most important thing you can do to prevent colds and flu.”
Stay clean inside, too, recommended Dr. Lucille, by eating cleaner throughout the flu and cold season. Especially important to avoid is sugary foods and drinks like soda and alcohol, since sugar is an immune system buster. Immune system boosters include plenty of high antioxidant brightly colored fruits and veggies.
Rest Up – Sleep is more important than ever during the fall and winter months, said Dr. Lucille. Although experts aren’t exactly sure how rest helps to protect you, they agree that 7-9 hours of sleep each night (for adults) is essential for optimizing your immune system.
Soothe Your System – Chronic stress suppresses the immune system. Avoid stress as much as possible, and if you can’t avoid it, learn to cope with it by practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation. Some studies show that people who meditate regularly show a sustained decrease in levels of stress hormones.
When To Stay Home
The best way to avoid getting a cold or the flu is to avoid those who are sick. That’s not always easy, though, said Heather Rosen, MD, Director of Urgent Care at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “You can be contagious with these viruses a day or two before you experience symptoms up to a week afterward,” she explained.
While you can’t do much about infecting others when you don’t know that you’re sick, do others at work or school a favor and stay home when sick if possible, recommended Dr. Rosen, especially if you have a fever over 100 degrees, a severe cough, diarrhea or vomiting.
When To Go To the Doc
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seeing your doc for an antibiotic for a cold or the flu is a no-no in most instances. Antibiotics do not fight these viruses, and moreso, unneeded antibiotics may lead to future antibiotic-resistant infections. So treat your cold or the flu symptoms at first with plenty of rest and fluids, as well as over the counter remedies if desired for fever, pain control and cough.
But because both a cold and the flu can cause secondary complications like sinus infections, bronchitis and pneumonia, you may need to seek medical care at some point. When to see the doc? According to Vincent Pedre, MD, New York City internist, “if you have a high fever for more than 24-48 hours, bad body aches, shortness of breath, intense cough and bringing up colored mucus, or have pain in your chest or sinuses, it may be a warning sign that you need medical care.”
Should I Get a Flu Shot?
A recent study by the U.S. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network based on a survey of over 2,500 adults and children, showed that the 2012-2013 flu vaccine was only about 56 percent effective, surprising in a year when the “match” between the flu viruses the vaccine is designed to protect against and the types of flu viruses found circulating in the U.S. population was a good one. More unsettling were several studies that showed that those who received yearly flu vaccination may be more susceptible to a H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak compared to those who don’t get immunized.
These studies are not so surprising to Vincent Pedre, MD, New York City internist. “More people are getting the flu shot than ever before,” he said. “And we still see roughly the same number of flu cases each year.”
Does this mean you should shun the flu shot? “Not necessarily,” said Dr. Pedre, who believes that some protection is better than none, especially for those with increased susceptibility to viruses, like diabetics or people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD. “But I don’t push the vaccine on my patients. It is a co-decision, an informed consent sort of thing,” he added.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN