With so many people affected by the common cold and the flu, it may seem impossible to avoid catching one, or both. But you can greatly reduce your chances. Remember, if you’re sick already, make responsible choices like staying home from work or school. If you think you might be sick, see your doctor or get to a Methodist emergency room if you have a serious fever or severe dehydration.
When emergency care may be necessary
From painful headaches to body aches to lack of energy, coming down with the flu is no fun at all. A normal case of the flu usually comes on suddenly and lasts anywhere from one to two weeks. People may have a fever or chills, cough, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and muscle aches. But when it strikes some people, the virus can be more dangerous – even life-threatening.
For those who may be more susceptible to the virus, more serious complications may occur, such as pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, bronchitis and seizures. So contact your doctor immediately if you or a loved one experiences any of these warning signs during a bout with the flu:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Chest or belly pain
- Sudden dizziness
- Symptoms that get better, then return with fever and worse cough
- Severe dehydration
In infants and children, watch for trouble breathing, a high fever with a rash, trouble urinating, lack of tears when crying or skin that is bluish in color.
Commonly Asked Questions and Answers
ChildrenBecause of their weaker immune systems, children under the age of five – and even more so under age two – are especially vulnerable to the flu. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, each year, more than 20,000 children younger than five are hospitalized for flu-related complications.
Pregnant womenDue to changes in their immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy, pregnant women are at higher risk of severe flu. This sensitivity lasts for up to two weeks after giving birth. The flu can even cause problems with the pregnancy, like premature delivery.
Adults 65 and olderAs people get older, their flu-fighting immune systems become frail. The CDC estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in seniors over 65.
Those with medical conditionsThe flu weakens your body and can exacerbate an already existing health problem, which is why people with certain conditions may have a harder time coping with the virus. Plus, these conditions make people more susceptible to flu complications like pneumonia, and having the flu can make these other health problems worse. The best example is diabetes. Infections like the flu make it harder to control blood sugar. Conditions that may worsen from the virus include:
- Neurological conditions
- Chronic lung disease
- Heart disease
- Liver and kidney disorders
- Blood disorders
- Weakened immune systems due to disease or medications
- Severe obesity
If you begin to experience flu-like symptoms and have any of these medical conditions, talk to your doctor so you can take the proper precautions.
Our medical experts bring you the lowdown on this year’s flu predictions and what you need to know to stay well.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
Expert answer: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vaccine may reduce the risk of flu illness by 50-60 percent. Most years, the strains that are going around are the ones included in the flu vaccine. But, occasionally, the vaccine is less effective. But even when this happens, the vaccine still provides partial protection and could reduce the severity of the illness.
Is the vaccine only in the form of a shot?
Expert answer: The flu shot is the most effective way to prevent the flu, but there is a nasal spray made of attenuated (weakened) live flu viruses. In the past, pediatricians have used it for children, however, due to data showing an ineffectiveness of the nasal spray, the CDC has recommended not using the nasal spray during the 2016-2017 flu season.
Can you get the flu from the flu vaccine?
Expert answer: Absolutely not. If you’re feeling cruddy the next day, yes, that is probably a result of the flu vaccine, but that will be about the extent of it.
When is the best time of year to get the flu vaccine?
Expert answer: As soon as it becomes available – usually by the end of August or the beginning of September – before the cold and flu season starts. Usually, the vaccine takes a couple of weeks to become effective.
Yes. Studies have shown that flu shots are not associated with adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes such as loss of pregnancy, preterm birth or birth defects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved the use of the flu shot for pregnant women. This is because the flu shot contains an inactivated flu virus which is safe for mom and baby. However, the nasal spray flu vaccine, which contains live, weakened flu viruses, is not approved for pregnant women. So if you are pregnant, make sure you get a flu shot, not the nasal spray vaccine.
Because the best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated before flu season, the CDC recommends that pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum be vaccinated.
An analysis of studies involving nearly 7,000 people found that participants who got the flu shot were 36 percent less likely to have a heart event, such as a heart attack or hospitalization, compared to those who didn’t get the vaccine. In those with a history of heart disease, the risk was 55 percent lower. And the risk of dying from heart disease was reduced 20 percent.
When you come down with the flu, you typically feel aches and pains. These discomforts are actually caused by inflammation as your body fights the flu. Researchers believe that inflammation can trigger plaques in the arteries to erupt, leading to a heart attack or other cardiac event. By preventing the flu, the vaccine protects you from that harmful inflammation.
Myth: I still have time – flu season hasn't started yet.
Fact: The timing of flu season is unpredictable. While it tends to peak from December to February, the flu season actually runs from October through May, and it’s hard to say when the virus will start making its rounds. Not only that, but it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in. If you wait, you could end up getting it too late in the season to help. (And what’s worse than getting a shot and then getting sick because you procrastinated?)
Myth: I can't get a flu shot because I have a cold already.
Fact: Only your doctor can tell you if you aren’t eligible for the flu shot. As long as you don't have a fever above 101 or any other significant illness, it's okay to get the flu shot before your cold clears up.
Myth: I'll probably catch the flu anyway.
Fact: The flu vaccine cuts your risk of getting the flu by 50-70 percent (not to mention, even if you do get the flu, it reduces your flu symptoms substantially). Look at it this way, you may also still be injured in a car crash even if you wear a seat belt. Does that mean you should ditch wearing a seat belt?
Myth: I got the flu shot before and it ended up giving me the flu.
Fact: Flu shots are made with inactivated flu virus, which cannot give you the actual flu. The most common reaction is soreness or redness at the site of the actual infection. A very small percentage of people will get a low-grade fever and aches as their body builds up an immune response, but this will only last one to two days and is not the same as getting the flu.
Similarly, if you have ever gotten the nasal spray, which is a very weakened flu virus, you may have gotten a stuffy nose or cold-like symptoms as your body builds up an immune response.
Myth: If I get the flu, I'll just take antibiotics.
Fact: Antibiotics don't treat viral infections like the flu. If someone develops a serious complication of the flu, such as pneumonia, then they need antibiotics. But the antibiotics won't help the flu at all and may actually cause other unwanted side effects.
Myth: I'm pregnant, so I can’t get the flu shot.
Fact: The flu vaccine protects you and your baby. The flu is, in fact, more likely to cause severe illness and complications if you’re expecting. It can also cause premature labor and other health issues for your baby. And here’s good news: the flu shot you get now will protect your baby after his or her birth. Just make sure to get the standard flu injection, not the nasal spray.
Myth: The flu isn’t a big deal.
Fact: Thousands die from flu-related issues every year. Certain groups of people are even more vulnerable and can develop deadly complications from the flu – specifically:
- Children under 2
- Adults over 65
- Women who are pregnant
- People with heart, kidney or liver disease, asthma, COPD, diabetes and all other chronic medical conditions
- People who are morbidly obese
Myth: I have to make a doctor's appointment to get a flu shot and I don't have time.
Fact: There are many convenient options to get your flu shot now. You may be able to get it at the grocery store or at your child’s pediatrician’s office when you get your child a flu shot. Other options include pharmacies, local health clinics and your workplace.
Myth: I hate shots.
Fact: If you hate shots that's not a myth, it's a fact. The good news is that the vaccine comes in a couple of forms for those who fear needles, including nasal spray and intradermal shots (injected in the skin with a smaller needle). The bad news is that the CDC is not recommending the nasal spray for the 2016-2017 flu season, because it has been shown to be ineffective protection against the flu.
Remember, too, that if you come down with the flu you can infect children or less healthy (and more vulnerable) people around you. So get your flu shot.
Preventing and treating the flu
A flu shot can lower your chance of getting the flu. Hand washing can also prevent the flu. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizers are the second-best choice.
Most importantly, when you have the flu, you need rest. And until your symptoms are gone, it is a good idea to not go back to your full activity level. You also need plenty of fluids and should avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.
Preventing and treating a cold
Colds are extremely contagious and are transmitted by droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus. These droplets become airborne when an infected person sneezes, coughs or speaks. You contaminate yourself by inhaling these droplets or touching a surface that the viruses have landed on and then touching your eyes or nose. To prevent getting a cold, avoid close contact with people who have a cold. Wash your hands often and avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
Antibiotics will not cure a cold. In fact, nothing can cure a cold except time. However, self-care may help you reduce your discomfort. You may try over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve aches and fever or decrease congestion. You should also stay hydrated, avoid alcohol and smoke, get plenty of rest and possibly use a humidifier.