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Cold or Flu?

Your survival guide for the sniffly, sneezy, achy, queasy season.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

The runny nose, the scratchy throat, the truck-ran-over-me feeling. It must be cold and flu season.

The tricky thing is knowing which one you have. The flu especially is nothing to sneeze at. "People often don't realize the flu is a pretty serious illness," Tracy Wimbush, MD, an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, tells WebMD. Each year, 10% to 20% of Americans succumb to it, more than 100,000 people are hospitalized for it, and 36,000 die from the flu and its complications. For elderly people, newborn babies, and people with certain chronic illnesses, such as cancer or heart problems, the flu and its complications can be life-threatening.

The cold, while less dangerous, can still make a person feel pretty miserable. And there's a reason why it's often referred to as "common": Each year, people living in the United States suffer 1 billion colds, according to some estimates. In addition, more than 110 distinct viruses are known to cause the common cold. That's why there isn't a cold vaccine -- it's just too complicated to create.

We've spelled out the basics here to give you an idea of which nasty bug you've picked up and how you can feel better, faster. We've also included the best prevention tips around to help you remain cold- and flu-free this year.

Ill advice? Or real remedy?

  • Starve a fever? Or is it a cold?
    Treat both the same. What's most important is to drink more fluids than usual. Avoid caffeinated drinks, which rob your system of fluids. And follow your appetite: If you're not really hungry, try eating simple foods such as white rice or broth. But if you feel like eating a steak, go for it!
  • Does chicken soup or a hot toddy help?
    Like many cold remedies, neither will drive a virus from your body. But they can soothe your sore throat and help you sleep. Chicken soup can also clear your nasal passages. Liquids help combat dehydration during illness, and hot soup produces steam that can help break up nasal congestion and keep your nasal passages moist. Many recipes for chicken soup also contain garlic, which has antibiotic and antiviral properties.
  • Are natural remedies effective?
    • Zinc: About an equal number of studies say that zinc helps -- or that it doesn't. For some people, zinc lozenges and nasal sprays may help prevent and treat a cold and the flu.
    • Echinacea: Scientific studies looking at this herbal supplement, traditionally used to treat or prevent colds, reveal mixed results. One shows that a certain type of echinacea formulation did not prevent or treat colds in college students who were exposed to the common cold virus. But studies that evaluate other formulations or other parts of the herb have shown different results.
    • Vitamin C: A recent scientific paper reviewing 65 years' worth of studies found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds in the majority of people. However, one large study found that people who took a vitamin C megadose-8 grams-on the first day of a cold shortened its duration.
    • Ginseng: Ginseng has long been used as a tonic or immune stimulant for people recovering from chronic illnesses, and in traditional Chinese medicine, it's used to restore health. Does ginseng help with a cold or the flu? Maybe. In one small recent Canadian study, people taking North American ginseng had fewer, milder, and shorter colds.
    • Ginger: Studies of ginger show its ability to settle the stomach and control nausea and vomiting. Among Ayurvedic practitioners in India, it's long been prescribed as a digestive aid. In China and Japan, it's used to treat headaches, colds, and nausea.

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