Although contagious viruses are active year-round, we’re most vulnerable to them in fall and winter. That’s because, in large part, we spend more time indoors with other people when the weather gets cold. Most respiratory bugs, such as colds and flu, come and go within a few days, with no lasting effects. But some cause serious health problems. People who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more prone to respiratory illnesses and more severe complications than nonsmokers. In addition, people with diabetes, asthma, or other pre-existing conditions are more prone to complications from these viruses.
Colds usually cause a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. Other symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery eyes. There is no vaccine against colds, which come on gradually and often spread through contact with infected mucus.
Flu comes on suddenly and lasts longer than colds. Flu symptoms include fever, headache, chills, dry cough, body aches, and fatigue. Like colds, flu can cause a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. You also can get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it.
Flu season in the United States may begin as early as October and can last as late as May, and generally peaks between December and February. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized from flu-related complications each year.
Protect yourself and your loved ones with these prevention tips:
- Get vaccinated against flu. Flu vaccination, available as a shot or a nasal spray, can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. It’s ideal to be vaccinated by October, although vaccination into January and beyond can still offer protection. Annual vaccination is needed because flu viruses are constantly changing, flu vaccines may need to be updated, and because a person’s immune protection from the vaccine declines over time. Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk for developing serious complications from flu, including those 65 and older and people with chronic health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease).
- Wash your hands often. Both colds and flu can be passed through contaminated surfaces, including the hands. Wash hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds.
- Try to limit exposure to infected people
- Practice healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and keeping stress in check.
Usually, colds have to run their course. If you suspect you have the flu, talk to your health care professional to start treatment as soon as possible.