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Cold and Flu Prevention Tips

Updated on October 24, 2012
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Cold and flu season is nearly upon us. Now is the time for an action plan that will help lessen our chances of getting sick. The cold and flu season usually runs from November through April, coincidentally, these are the very months that many of us spend more time indoors due to inclement weather. All that time spent indoors makes it easy for cold and flu viruses to spread on surfaces and people.

One of the most important things you can do to prevent cold and flu viruses is to eliminate the environment that lets them grow and multiply. Just about everyone knows to wash their hands for at least 15 seconds with soap several times a day, and those alcohol-based hand sanitizers are extremely popular nowadays, but there are other ways viruses are spread. When greeting people with a handshake or a quick kiss on the cheek, viruses can be transferred. Door knobs, pulls and handles (particularly on refrigerators, cabinets and microwaves) can harbor them too. Electronic items are also covered with viruses, so be aware that remote controls, cellphones, copy machines, keyboards and even elevator buttons can be contaminated. For objects you are able to clean, a quick wipe with an alcohol or similar disinfecting product will kill the viruses, but for objects you must touch but are not able to clean, avoid touching your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth until you are able to wash your hands. Another thing to remember is that viruses live longer on wet surfaces, so if you touch something wet, such as during your commute on a rainy day, do not touch your face and wash your hands as soon as you are able to.

Another important thing to do is avoiding getting too close to people that are obviously sick. This may be the hardest thing to do since many sick people love to walk up to people to talk about just how sick they are. Try to be a friend and sympathize with them, but do it from a safe distance.

Is it a Cold or the Flu?

The common cold and influenza are caused by different viruses, however, both illness share some symptoms. Generally the flu is worse than a cold. Flu symptoms include fever (often higher than 102F / 38.9C), chills, body aches, headache, extreme fatigue and a dry cough. Cold symptoms include headache, congestion with a runny, stuffy nose, scratchy or sore throat and a mild cough. Cold symptoms are less intense than the flu and you are usually able to recover from a cold within a week or two.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a cold or flu, but if you have body aches you should see a doctor right away, since there are specialized tests and medications that are only effective within the first few days of the flu. These medications can help lessen the duration and severity of the flu.

The flu can be a very serious illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control approximately 5% to 20% of the U.S. population is infected with the flu virus and over 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year. The flu can kill, depending on the severity of the flu virus strain, deaths range from 3,000 to about 49,000 people per year. Many of these are preventable deaths, so if you have an underlying condition, such as a lung or heart condition, and suspect you have the flu, you should see your doctor right away.

Sometimes it is necessary to see a doctor for the common cold too, for example, if some symptoms are severe, such as headache, sore throat or if you have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if cold symptoms last more than two weeks or are accompanied by a high fever (over 102F). Your cold may have developed into something worse, or it may not be a cold at all, it could be a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics or even corticosteroids to treat.

If it is an ordinary cold, however, there is no need for antibiotics. In fact, antibiotics will not work against cold viruses, they are only effective against bacterial infections. Too many people take antibiotics unnecessarily and this leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The news is filled with stories about stronger than usual bacteria, for example, the recent stories of MRSA and the horrible flesh-eating bacteria. Misuse of antibiotics has a big role to play in the development and spread of these antibiotic resistant bacteria. This is a problem that is growing at an alarming rate in the United States.

If you have a cold the best treatment is letting the body’s natural immune system clear it out. To help it along, simply get a lot of rest, avoid stress, stay warm and drink a lot of liquids. Over the counter medications can help you manage the symptoms.

There are a few natural supplements that may be worth a try, but the jury is out on just how effective they are, but it may still be a good idea to increase your exposure to the supplements in a safe and cost effective way. For example, zinc is thought to block cold viruses from attaching to the nose and throat. If you are not sure you want to invest on a zinc lozenge, look for a cough medicine that has zinc already added to it. Vitamin D is another supplement said to help boost the immune system, but instead of purchasing pills, try drinking one extra glass of Vitamin D enriched milk each day during the winter months. Vitamin C is also thought to reduce symptoms and lessen the duration of colds, you can easily increase your intake by having one citrus fruit each day (orange, grapefruit, etc). Other people swear by saunas or hot baths, they believed that raising your body temperature helps your body clear the cold virus faster, in addition, inhaling hot, steamy air can help break up congestion in the sinus and lungs.

A few preventative steps now can help protect you from the coming cold and flu season. We may have a bad cold and flu season upon us. Some experts believe that a mild cold and flu season is followed by a stronger season. As we know, last year was incredibly mild so it may be a good idea to start putting some of these tips into practice.

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