Cold and Flu FAQ

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Cold and Flu SeasonWhat causes the common cold? What causes the flu? When and why do they strike? Test your knowledge of these cold and flu basics with out list of Frequently Asked Questions.

What causes the common cold?

More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold. A cold virus usually infects only the upper respiratory tract: nose and throat, so symptoms will be predominately above the neck. Symptoms include a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, coughing, congestion, and watery eyes. These symptoms can last for up to two weeks.

What causes the flu?

The flu is more scientifically known as influenza. It’s a respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses. It develops when a flu virus infects your respiratory system, including nose, throat, bronchial tubes, and possibly the lungs. The flu usually causes more severe illness than the common cold. Flu can bring on fever, chills, body aches, and exhaustion, symptoms that are rarely caused by simple colds. The flu is usually at its worst for three to four days. It may take anywhere from seven to 10 days to recover, though you may have a lingering cough and fatigue.

When and why do colds and flus strike?

The cold season begins around late August and lasts until March or April. The opening of schools, which brings people closer together, as well as changes in humidity, are thought to contribute to cold season. Flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May. Low humidity as well has been shown to make conditions ripe for the spread of the flu virus.

Colds and flus are more likely to be transmitted in winter because people spend more time indoors and are exposed to higher concentrations of airborne viruses. Dry winter weather also dries up nasal passages, making them more susceptible to viruses.

How do the viruses spread?

Both cold and flu viruses are transmitted the same way — through microscopic droplets from an infected person’s respiratory system. You can get a cold or flu virus when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets containing their germs land in your mouth or nose. You can also get infected by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.

Is there a cure for cold and flu?

There is no cure for the cold or flu. In addition to getting plenty of rest and drinking a lot of fluids, you may take over-the-counter medicines to treat symptoms. If you have a cold, for instance, antihistamines can dry up your sinuses, or you can try a saline nasal spray to loosen the mucus in your nose and help wash it out, which essentially helps to flush out some of the virus. There are over-the-counter medications to help relieve the symptoms of the flu, as well, including medicines to reduce fever and relieve pain. Always check with your health care provider to determine what medications are right for you.

What are some hazards of taking over-the-counter medicines?

Many over-the-counter medications contain the same active ingredients. If you take several medicines with the same active ingredient you might be taking more than the recommended dose. This can cause serious health problems. If you are taking over-the-counter or prescription medications not related to a cold or the flu, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about which cold and flu medications are safe for you. Read all labels carefully. You don’t want to take any store-bought medications that interfere with your prescribed medications.

What medications may be prescribed?

There are several prescription antiviral medicines that may help shorten the duration of the flu, but they need to be taken within the first 48 hours of the illness to be most effective.

The Role of Antivirals: Antiviral medications are prescription pills, liquids, or inhalers used to prevent or treat flu viruses. If you get the flu, antiviral medications may make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious complications from the flu. Antiviral medications work best when started within the first two days of getting sick.

There are four antiviral drugs approved for treating the flu in the United States—oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine (generic), and rimantadine (Flumadine).

If you are exposed to the flu, antiviral medication may prevent you from becoming sick. Talk to your health care provider if you have been or may be near a person with the flu.

Will I need antibiotics?

Antibiotics do not kill viruses, including viruses that cause a cold or the flu. Antibiotics do, however, kill bacteria. Sometimes a respiratory infection can weaken the immune system so much that a bacterial infection occurs and that’s when you would need an antibiotic. If your flu starts to get better and then gets worse, you may have a bacterial infection. Also, if you have other signs of bacterial infection such as green phlegm spotted with blood, see your health care provider right away. Antibiotic treatment may be necessary.

When to seek medical attention

It can be difficult to know when to call the doctor for a cold or flu, especially since most of the time, colds and flu just have to run their course. Examples of when to call your health care provider for a cold or flu include having symptoms that get better and then return, or symptoms that get worse, or having an underlying medical condition.