Preventing Colds and Flu

Health, Home & Family
on February 4, 2001

Every year about this time, colds and flu make life miserable for millions of Americans. But the 2001 season may be a little worse than usual because shortages of the flu vaccine delayed the prevention so many people have learned to rely on.

Theres just a greater chance the flu will spread with fewer people having the vaccine early, says Dr. John Hale, a family practitioner in Union City, Tenn. Vaccine shortages in late 2000 meant the sickest and oldest received the shots first, followed by younger, healthier Americans.

With or without the vaccine, you can take common-sense precautions to avoid the full onslaught of cold and flu viruses. Chief among them is the time-honored tradition of washing ones hands regularly, particularly after touching someone with the virus.

Washing hands is so critical that hospitals recently have begun re-emphasizing it for their own nurses and doctors to prevent the spread of disease from patient to patient. Most recommend 30 seconds of scrubbing with hot, soapy water.

Its also important to avoid touching your eyes or nose in general. You may be unwittingly spreading the virus you just picked up from hand contact.

As for herbal supplements many people believe prevent colds, the research is still inconclusive, Hale says.

Cold and flu sufferers tend to overuse medicines in general, Hale says, adding that nose spray can be a particular problem. When you overuse it, it tightens the blood vessels of the nose. When they are robbed of their blood supply, they dont make mucus, and that can lead to scarring and more infections.

Its critical to know the difference between a cold and the flu and when to see a physician if either doesnt go away. The flu typically is accompanied by a higher fever than a cold and often appears more quickly than a cold, according to the American Association of Family Practitioners.

A cold starts with feeling tired, sneezing, coughing, and having a runny nose, the AAFP says. You can also have muscle aches, a scratchy or sore throat, watery eyes, and a headache. With the flu, you can have eye pain, sore throat, chills, dry cough, and muscle aches. When I see flu patients, they often say theyve never felt as bad in their lives, Hale says.

If a cold sufferer has a persistent fever and has green drainage, it may be time to visit the doctor because the virus could have turned into a sinus or ear infection or bronchitis.

Remember that antibiotics wont cure a cold or flu, but there are new flu prescriptions available such as Flumadine and Relenza.

Its hard for most people to be patient and wait out the common cold, Hale says. Usually within three to four days the cold will be better, but sometimes it will take a week or more, he says.