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Every year, colds and flu spread across the country from person to person and family to family. This month, PI.org offers information on the difference between colds and flu and how to guard your health this season.
The common cold and influenza (also known as the flu) are two respiratory illnesses that have similar symptoms but are caused by different viruses. Colds are usually milder than the flu and rarely result in serious problems such as pneumonia. Flu, however, can cause severe illness with body aches, fever, and a possibility of more serious health problems and/or complications. These flu complications could even lead to death in certain people.
How does the cold and flu spread?
Flu and cold viruses are spread when people who have a cold or flu cough or sneeze near you. Sometimes you can get these illnesses by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. People with the flu can infect others one day before having symptoms and up to five days after getting sick. Colds are most contagious in the first two to three days and are usually not contagious at all by days seven to 10.
How can I protect myself and my family from the cold and flu?
Get a yearly flu vaccination. You have two options:
- The “flu shot” is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease).
- The nasal-spray flu vaccine is a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for “live attenuated influenza vaccine” or FluMist®). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people (people who do not have medical conditions that may make them susceptible to complications of flu) ages 2 to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.
Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
Clean commonly touched surfaces (sink handles, phones, remotes, door handles, etc.) with a disinfectant.
Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner after you use the bathroom, cough, or sneeze. Also wash your hands before you eat.
Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils with other family members. Use your own glass or disposable cups when you or someone else is sick.
Talk with your child care center about its hygiene practices (clean environment/hand hygiene) and policies about keeping sick children at home.
Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and eat a well balanced diet.
What if I think I’m starting to get sick?
Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands.
Stay home if you are sick until at least 24 hours after you no longer have a fever (100°F or 37.8°C) or signs of a fever (without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®).
While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
The following people are at risk for flu complications:
- People 65 years of age and older
- People who have chronic health problems like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, etc.
- Pregnant women
- Young children
If you think you may have flu symptoms (see chart below) and if you are at risk for complications, call your healthcare provider right away. People can have various reactions to flu from mild illness to severe illness; however, most healthy people have few complications.
Is it the cold or the flu? Compare your symptoms:
|Start of illness||Slow||Sudden|
|Stuffed up nose||Usually||Sometimes|
|Coughing||Usually; mild hacking cough||Yes|
|Headache||Not usually||Comes on suddenly and can be severe|
|Body Achiness||Usually mild||Yes|
|Tiredness, weakness||Mild||Yes, can be extreme|
|Fever||Unsually no fever in adults and older children, but can occur in infants and small children||Usually 100-102° F, but can go up to 104° F and usually lasts three to four days|
|Diarrhea and Vomiting||No||Can sometimes occur in children, more often than adults|
When should I get help from my doctor or healthcare provider?
- Fast breathing or trouble breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or not interacting
- Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
- Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
- Fever with a rash
In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:
- Unable to eat
- Trouble breathing
- No tears when crying
- Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu–like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
What is the treatment for colds and flu?
Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs if you have the flu. However, these have to be taken within 48 hours of the start of your symptoms. They can make you feel better sooner and may prevent serious complications.
Doctors will not prescribe antibiotics for the flu or a cold. Antibiotics have no effect on the viruses that cause these illnesses.
- Hot liquids such as tea or soup can help you feel better and relieve nasal congestion.
- Gargling with warm salt water can moisten a sore throat and help it feel better.
- Steamy showers can help your nose and sinuses feel better.
- Elevate your head with an extra pillow when lying down.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer gel frequently.
- You should blow your nose gently, pressing a finger over one nostril and blowing and then switch sides. Use tissues once and then throw away. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
- CDC: Preventing the Seasonal Flu through Vaccination
- CDC Flu Website
- CDC: Cover Your Cough
- CDC: “Take 3” Actions to Fight the Flu
- CDC: Seasonal Influenza
- CDC: What to do if You Get Sick
- WebMD: 9 Tips to Treat Colds and Flu the ‘Natural’ Way
- AJIC: Personal health—Bringing good hygiene home
- CDC Get Smart—Know When Antibiotics Work