Is it the cold or the flu?

Have you noticed that your office break room, children’s school or local community center is less crowded than usual? That’s because we’re in the midst of cold and flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Americans have 1 billion colds a year, and that we lose 22 million school days each year because of them. By following a few preventive measures, you can help reduce or prevent illnesses for you and your family.

Before you can prevent the cold and flu, it’s important to know which one you have and how you can became infected. The common cold is a viral infection of the respiratory tract. More than 200 different viruses can trigger the common cold, meaning it is easy to catch a cold again after you’ve just gotten over one. On the other hand, the flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. The flu usually appears most frequently in the winter and early spring, but it can begin as early as October, and last as late as May.

The cold and flu are both easily spread between people who spend significant time in close contact, such as those in classrooms, daycare, and offices. Since it’s wintertime and people spend more time together indoors, these viruses spread more easily than in warmer months. The common cold is spread person to person through direct contact, such as drinking from the same water bottle, and through the air when someone near you sneezes into the air (versus into their sleeve). The flu, however, is only spread through direct contact.

Symptoms for both the cold and flu include coughing, headaches and chest discomfort. How you tell the difference is that with the flu, you are likely to also run a high fever and experience body aches, weakness and fatigue. Symptoms for the flu also come on much more suddenly than the cold. When you have a cold, your nose and throat become inflamed so you will experience symptoms such as a runny nose, a sore throat, coughing and sneezing.

Now that you know the difference between the common cold and flu, how the viruses spread, and what the symptoms are, here are some common prevention and get well soon tips I share with my patients:

• Avoid others who are sick. Spending the day inside with those who are ill raises your risk of catching a virus.

• Wash your hands. Multiple times a day, with soap, for at least 20 seconds.

• Make time for sleep. Whether you’re sick or trying to avoid getting sick, adequate sleep every night helps your body remain healthy.

• Hydrate often. Fluids help thin out the mucus that your body makes when you’re sick. Drinking enough water helps clear out your system.

• Eat a healthy, well balanced diet. Eating right helps ensure you have all the necessary nutrients, and can help boost your immune system.

• Get plenty of Vitamin C. Whether it’s a supplement or from food, it will help boost your immune system.

• Try over-the-counter medications first. Most over-the-counter medications can help temporarily relieve symptoms such as sore throat, runny nose, fever, congestion, cough and fever. If your symptoms persist or you have questions about which medications to take, consult your primary care provider.