If you get a cold or flu this year, you may have your dirty hands to thank. Many viruses are spread that way. You pick up germs on your fingers and then get them in your mouth or eyes.
The solution: Wash your hands with soap often and well. It's a key way to prevent a cold or flu.
Get Your Flu Shot
You may think of the flu as a minor problem, but it can be severe, sidelining you for days. It can even be dangerous, especially for young children, older adults, and pregnant women. One little vaccine may save you and your family a lot of misery. It’s a myth that a flu shot can give you the flu.
Be Prepared for Cold Season
Before you battle cold and flu germs, make sure you have the supplies you need. Stock your medicine cabinet with any medicines you use, like pain relievers or decongestants. Don’t forget tissues, soap, and hand sanitizer. Make sure your thermometer still works. At the supermarket, load up on fluids, herbal tea, and simple comfort foods like chicken soup for when you're sick.
Pay Attention to Symptoms
Cold or flu? There's no surefire way to tell the symptoms apart. Even your doctor may not be sure.
Usually, colds are milder. You might have a runny or stuffy nose.
The flu is usually more severe and comes on suddenly -- probably knocking you off your feet for a few days. Fever, body aches, and exhaustion are more common with the flu.
Get the Right Medications
There are lots of cold and flu remedies to choose from at the drugstore. Be smart about the ones you use.
Combination medications that package several meds in one pill -- like a decongestant, cough suppressant, and a painkiller -- can be a convenient way to combat symptoms. Choose a medicine that treats your specific complaint; don't treat a problem you don't have. And don't take more than one medicine with the same ingredient. Read labels and choose only the medications that will help.
Skip the Antibiotics
Colds and flu are caused by viruses, so antibiotics will not help. They work only with bacterial infections. What's more, using antibiotics when you don't need them increases the risk of breeding dangerous germs that are resistant to drugs.
If You're Sick, Stay Home
It may not be easy to take a sick day. But if you have a cold or flu, you should. If you push yourself when you're sick and work instead of rest, your body may have a harder time fighting off the virus. Your cold could last longer. You could also spread the virus to other people.
So when you're sick, stay home, rest, and recover. It's better for you and everyone around you.
Use Throwaways to Curb Germs
When someone in your family is sick, switch to disposable products in your bathroom until they get better. Swap your cloth hand towel for paper and your bathroom cups for paper or plastic. It's a simple way to stop the spread of germs among family members.
Looking for natural ways to beat back your flu or cold symptoms? Try a spoonful of honey. It may help soothe a cough as well as as drugstore cough syrup. Don’t give honey to kids under age 1 – it’s not safe for them.
Some vitamins and herbs have shown promise as a treatment for cold symptoms, such as a combo of andrographis and Siberian ginseng. Echinacea and high doses of vitamin C may also help shorten cold symptoms. Elderberry may shorten flu symptoms.
Drink Extra Fluids
Drinking extra fluids when you're sick will help thin mucus, drain your sinuses and relieve a stuffy nose. Water, broth, and sports drinks are good choices. Alcohol isn't. Hot drinks -- like herbal tea -- will also warm your airways, helping relieve congestion.
If your sick kids aren't drinking enough, offer them Popsicles. Or let them drink fluids with a spoon or a straw. Try different ways to coax them.
Ask About Flu Medicine
No drugs can cure the flu, but some may help you get better faster. Prescription antiviral drugs can blunt the symptoms and help you recover. The catch: You need to start taking them within 48 hours of your first symptoms.
Talk to your doctor to find out more. One of these medicines may be right for you if you’re at high risk of having complications from flu.
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American Lung Association: Facts About the Common Cold.
Lisa M. Asta, MD, spokesperson, American Academy of Pediatrics; associate clinical professor of pediatrics, University of California San Francisco; practicing pediatrician, Walnut Creek, Calif.
CDC: Antibiotics Aren't Always the Answer, An Ounce of Prevention Keeps the Germs Away, Colds Versus Flu, Key Facts about Influenza, Seasonal Flu Shot, Seasonal Influenza, Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School, What You Should Know about Flu Antiviral Drugs.
Norman H. Edelman, MD, Chief Medical Officer, American Lung Association; professor of medicine, Stony Brook University Medical Center, Stony Brook, NY.
FamilyDoctor.org: Colds and the Flu: Treatment, Cough Medicine: Understanding Your OTC Options, OTC Cough and Cold Medicines and My Child.
National Jewish Health: Nasal Wash Treatment.
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database: Natural Medicines in the Clinical Management of Cold and Flu.
Paul, I. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, December 2007; vol 161: pp 1140-1146.
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.