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Nothing to sneeze at: 12 questions and answers about cold and flu

Australia and other parts of the southern hemisphere were hit hard by the flu this year. That means Americans need to brace themselves for a pretty nasty flu season. With the season upon us in the U.S., here are some common questions – and answers – about cold and flu.

How can I tell the difference between cold and flu?

Most people can’t definitively tell. But while both are respiratory viruses with similar symptoms, they’re different viruses with different courses of treatment. Generally cold symptoms are relatively mild and subside within a few days while flu symptoms tend to be more intense and last longer. Both can also be accompanied by fever or not, but usually the flu is associated with a moderate to high fever. Also, the flu can be accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, but this is much more common in children than adults. The main difference is that a cold typically won’t lead to something more serious, which is why protecting yourself with a flu vaccine is critical, especially if you’re at elevated risk.

How contagious are colds and flu?

Very! Different viruses and strains have varying windows for potential contagion, and those time frames include several days before symptoms appear and after they subside. So, for example, while your daycare may let your child return 24 hours after his fever is gone, he could easily still be contagious.

Who is at high risk for serious flu-related illnesses or complications?

Elevated risk groups include:

  • Infants and young children
  • Pregnant women
  • Persons age 65 and older
  • Those with chronic respiratory or heart conditions or
  • Those with compromised immune systems

How can I protect myself and my family?

Are you ready to hear the absolute, first-rate, number-one best flu prevention tip ever for anyone 6 months or older? Here you go: Get your flu shot. We and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can’t stress enough the importance of the flu vaccine in preventing and containing nearly 50,000 confirmed cases of flu that are likely to occur this flu season. And those are just the confirmed ones. It turns out that the flu is notoriously difficult to track, but up to 20 percent of us are likely to contract it this year, according to the CDC.

Can I get the flu vaccine in mist form instead of a flu shot?

Nasal versions of the flu vaccine contain live flu virus and definitely sting less than the injected version. And while they are FDA-approved, an extensive, multi-year CDC data analysis concludes that they do not provide sufficient protection. For this reason, we recommend a flu shot instead.

Beyond getting a flu shot, what else can I do?

Since vaccines don’t necessarily protect you from every strain of influenza, keep your normal good hygiene habits in overdrive between now and February. Frequent handwashing or hand sanitizing and coughing or sneezing into your sleeve (not your hand) are a must. You’ll also want to disinfect any frequently used surfaces, especially in the kitchen and bathroom, and add toys, doorknobs, light switch plates, phones and tablets to your list.

Is the flu serious?

It can be very serious for anyone at high risk. And even in otherwise healthy adults, the flu can lead to complications ranging from moderate to severe, such as ear and sinus infections or even conditions that require hospitalization.

Who should get a flu shot?

See above – everyone over the age of six months. Especially those who are at elevated risk. Also, keep in mind that young children may need two flu shots for adequate protection. And extra precaution should be taken to protect infants too young to vaccinate.

Where can I get a flu shot?

Almost anywhere. Flu vaccinations are available at your family doctor, as well as many pharmacies, municipal and county health facilities, workplaces, and many other sites in your community. There’s probably a place within walking distance or not much farther, so you really have no excuse not to do it.

When should I get a flu shot?

The CDC recommends getting a flu shot no later than the end of October, if possible. But getting a flu vaccine as late as January still provides some protection.

What should I do if I get sick with a cold or flu?

Again, it can be hard to tell the difference, but either way, do your community a favor and stay home. Teachers, parents, students and coworkers will thank you, not only for setting an example for taking care of yourself, but also for not sharing a potentially serious illness with them and their loved ones. This means you, too, Millennials. In addition, continue to vigilantly practice the good hygiene tips above, and limit your contact as much as possible with others in your home, especially infants, children and anyone else at elevated risk.

Are there effective prescription treatments for cold and flu?

If it’s a cold, sadly, the best advice we can offer are over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers/fever reducers, along with plenty of rest and fluids. But cough medicine should never be given to anyone younger than six years old.

If your symptoms become severe, contact MDLIVE. We can treat most cold and flu symptoms quickly and conveniently. If we determine that you have the flu, we can prescribe anti-viral medication that can shorten the duration and possibly the severity of your illness, but it can be expensive, so check with your health plan to make sure it’s covered affordably for you.

It’s also important to note that antibiotics are NOT an effective treatment for cold or flu.

Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of protecting yourself and your family with a flu vaccine this year. While it may not protect you from every possible strain you could contract, it is about 60 percent effective in preventing the flu, and it may even decrease the severity of flu symptoms if you do get the flu.

Flu season is here, and it’s serious

5% to 20% – Average percentage of Americans who come down with the flu each year.

63% – Estimated effectiveness of the 2017-2018 flu shot in preventing cases of the flu. The nasal vaccine is far less effective, and not recommended.

2 weeks – The time it takes for a flu vaccine to become effective, which is why early vaccination is critical.

200,000 – Average number of Americans hospitalized with flu-related illnesses.

3,000 to 49,000 – Number of Americans who die each year of flu-related illness.

1-4 days – Typical amount of time it takes for flu symptoms to appear once the virus is present in the body.

5-10 days – Number of days adults are potentially contagious, beginning with the day before symptoms appear.

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Raffaelo Zucco