Cold and flu season has arrived with many people developing stuffy noses, coughs and fevers as the weather turns colder. The fact is that cold and flu germs are present throughout the year but people tend to contract the illnesses more in winter. According to medical experts, research indicates that internal body temperatures fall after exposure to cold air which can suppress the body’s immune system. This can make it difficult for people to fight the virus that causes the common cold and may be the reason that flu seems more prevalent when the weather turns colder.
“It is important to understand the difference between a common cold and the flu,” said Dr. Preeti Gupta, MD, a family doctor with Bayhealth Medical Center. “The common cold is predominantly an upper-respiratory infection, with cough and stuffy nose. With the flu, patients have higher fevers and may not have cold symptoms at all. The most common symptom of flu over the common cold is muscle aches and extreme tiredness. This time of year, with the fluctuations in temperatures, colds are more common than flu.”
Dr. Gupta said that flu and colds are treated differently. There is no medication to treat the common cold, but patients with a cold can take over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms. If mucous is clear, there is no need for antibiotics or other treatment as they will not be effective and could lead to antibiotic-resistance in patients. However, if mucous appears dark green or brown, antibiotics may be necessary as this could indicate a more serious illness. Dr. Gupta cautioned that no over-the-counter medications should be given to children under the age of two. Parents should take the child to a doctor to determine what line of treatment is best.
“We can treat the flu, but patients should first receive a true diagnosis of the illness,” Dr. Gupta said. “Doctors should do a nasal swab to diagnose that the patient does actually have the flu. If the test comes back positive, there are three types of medications available to treat the illness. However, they only shorten the duration of the flu. Instead of being sick for seven to ten days, patients are better in as little as five days. The medication must be started within 48 hours of symptoms or they are not effective.” Dr. Gupta says that patients who are at risk for severe complications from the flu, such as young children and the elderly, are often provided the medication in order to avoid those complications that may include pneumonia.
There are ways to prevent contracting the flu, although the common cold may be more difficult to prevent. A flu immunization is the best protection against the flu as is avoiding anyone who may be exhibiting flu symptoms. Frequent hand washing during flu season, which lasts from the end of July through March, is another way to avoid the germs that cause the flu. When coughing or sneezing, do so into a bent arm at the elbow and not into your hands as touching surfaces with the flu germ on them could lead others to contract the illness.
Last year, there were reports that the flu vaccine did not protect against a strain of the flu that was prevalent during the 2014-15 flu season. Dr. Gupta said that scientists who create the flu vaccine look at historical data to see what flu virus has been prevalent in past years and how the virus changes over the years to create the vaccine. However, there are hundreds of strains of the flu and it is impossible for the scientists to know for sure which ones will appear during flu season. In 2014, a version of the flu virus known as H3N2 was not included in the vaccine but was predominant in patients during flu season. There were reports that the strain may have mutated somewhat so that the flu vaccine did not prevent people from contracting it.
“This does not mean people should not get the flu shot,” Dr. Gupta said. “It is unusual for the vaccine not to prevent people from contracting the flu. Last year was unusual.” Dr. Gupta said that anyone who begins suffering from body aches, fever and extreme tiredness should contact their doctor as soon as possible to be tested for the flu.