It’s that time of year. Cold-and-flu season. You know the signs: an annoying tickle in the back of the throat, a nagging cough, a runny nose, a sore throat. Or worse yet, fever, chills, and body aches. Avoiding contact with individuals who are sick is the most effective way to stay well this winter, but hardly the easiest, especially if you work in an office or have small children.
The Common Cold
Health experts estimate that more than a billion colds will be circulating this winter, and many of us will end up battling two to four of them from December through May. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering that the germs from just one sneeze can cover a six-foot radius, and that those germs can live on hard and soft surfaces, such as a communal stapler or a hand towel, for up to two days.
Keeping colds at bay
Since most of us can’t avoid the most common cold incubators -- enclosed spaces with poor air circulation, like offices, grocery stores, classrooms, and public transportation—the best way to reduce the chance of catching one is to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water often, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in Atlanta. (If you need a prompt, sing the alphabet twice.) “You should clean your hands after using the restroom, before eating, and after being in contact with shared objects,” says Susan Rehm, vice chair of the department of infectious disease at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
Although alternative remedies -- including zinc, eucalyptus, echinacea, garlic, and ginseng -- are popular with many cold sufferers, evidence of any benefits derived from them remains largely anecdotal. By and large, there are no scientific studies that support the claims of these products, notes Rehm, “but they’re not harmful.”
If your child should come home from school with a cold, don’t automatically assume everyone in the house will follow suit. Instead, adopt some anti-sniffle protocols: Carry on with the hand-washing, instruct your children to sneeze into their elbow or a tissue (and place it promptly in the waste bin), don rubber gloves to clear the table, switch from cloth hand towels in the bathroom to paper, and encourage everyone in the family to get as much sleep as possible.
Speeding up recovery
While there’s no cure for the common cold, you can relieve many of its peskiest symptoms by following the advice your mom probably swore by, according to Christopher A. Ohl, a professor of internal medicine/ infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. So make it a priority to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids (six to eight glasses a day), and eat chicken soup. A study at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that chicken soup may reduce upper-respiratory symptoms by limiting the growth of mucus-producing white blood cells, thus helping you feel less stuffy. Some ear, nose, and throat doctors also suggest that eating spicy foods may clear congestion. “In the same way your eyes and nose water when you eat a spicy burrito, eating spicy foods when you’re sick can help clear your nasal passages,” says Ohl. (Get recipes.)
While a cold isn’t as debilitating as the flu, some of its symptoms, such as a lingering cough, can last for up to three weeks, says Rehm. “Many patients say, ‘There’s something wrong with my immune system, because I can’t shake this,’ but a cough and an overall feeling of fatigue after a cold are just par for the course.” That said, you should seek medical attention if you’ve been sick and recover, but then within a few days you are hit with a fever or shortness of breath, have difficulty breathing, or start coughing up thick mucus. “It’s extraordinarily rare for pneumonia to complicate a cold, but if you have these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention,” says Rehm.
Colds and the flu are both in the respiratory-virus family, but you should think of the flu as the cold’s nasty sister. Its symptoms are much more severe—even deadly. The telltale sign that you have the flu and not a cold is that the flu comes on quickly. Doctors use the acronym FACTS to identify its symptoms: fever, aches, chills, tiredness, and sudden onset. The reason you may feel like you’ve been hit by a truck is that as the virus takes hold, it releases inflammatory chemicals throughout your system, causing headaches, fever, and muscle and joint pain.
Sidestepping the flu
“We can never predict the severity of any influenza season,” says Tim Uyeki, chief medical officer for the influenza division at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC. “What we do know is that seasonal influenza usually occurs somewhere between October and May, and it will typically peak somewhere between January and March.” This is why the CDC recommends that everyone in the United States aged six months and older receive an annual flu vaccine, especially those who are morbidly obese, elderly, suffering from a chronic medical condition, or pregnant. As with colds, avoiding close contact with sick people; washing your hands; drinking plenty of water; resisting the urge to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth; and sleeping more than usual can help you fight off the virus.
Getting well soon(er)
While taking an occasional sick day can be rejuvenating, most people can’t afford to be laid up for an entire week with the flu. The good news: Research has shown that taking a prescription antiviral, such as oseltamivir or zanamivir, in the first 48 hours after contracting the flu virus can speed recovery. Individuals with chronic conditions may also benefit from taking the medication, even if it has been five to seven days since they first got sick. “These drugs specifically address the reproduction of the virus in your system and reduce symptoms as well as the length of time you remain contagious,” says Rehm.
Whether or not you take an antiviral, what you need most is an over-the-counter pain reliever to reduce fever and several days to a week or more of rest and relaxation. If, however, you must go back to work after just a few days’ rest, make sure you’ve been fever-free for at least 24 hours (without the aid of fever-reducing medications) to avoid the likelihood of spreading the virus to your coworkers, cautions Uyeki. “Don’t be surprised if you feel sluggish for a while, as some studies have shown that flu-related fatigue can linger for as long as six weeks,” says Rehm.
If you’ve had the flu and gotten better but then develop a new fever shortly thereafter, consult your physician. “There’s a chance that you may have a secondary bacterial infection, which could lead to more serious complications, such as pneumonia,” says Uyeki.
The bottom line: Watch your symptoms, take them seriously, and visit your doctor sooner rather than later. And most important, treat yourself with care. Trying to tough it out may seem like a good idea, but ultimately it could land you right back in bed -- instead of on the road to recovery.