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Region 7 Public Health Office

Cold and Flu

Late fall, winter and early spring are the times of the year when many of us come down with "a bug", a cold, the flu or even pneumonia. Because we spend more time indoors and close to other people, there is more opportunity for the "bugs" to spread.

Children often get up to 6 or 8 colds a year, while adults may average 2-4 colds a year. And the flu typically causes over 100,000 hospitalizations, and more than 20,000 deaths each year. Children, again, experience the highest incidence of the flu, since they spend much of their day in school in close contact with classmates. Even cases of pneumonia increase in the winter, since that disease is often preceded by the flu or a cold. In fact, flu and pneumonia combined are the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.

But there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of you or your family becoming sick this year. Key to reducing the number of colds is to wash your hands, and wash them often.

To prevent the flu, there is a vaccine available. It takes your body's immune system about 6 - 8 weeks to respond to the vaccination, so most flu vaccine shots are given from late October - November. You can still benefit from getting vaccinated after November. Studies have shown that the vaccine is 70%-90% effective in preventing the disease in healthy young adults. The vaccine can also reduce hospitalization by about 70%, and death by 85%, when taken by elderly people who do not reside in nursing homes. Even among nursing home residents, the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 50%, reduce the risk of pneumonia by 50% - 60%, and reduce the risk of death by 80%. It is important to know that the influenza vaccine produced in the United States cannot cause the flu. The most common side effect, experienced by less than 1/3 of all people who receive the vaccine, is soreness in the arm where the injection was made.

While the vaccination is available to anyone who wants to reduce his/her chances of getting the flu, there are some groups of people for whom it is highly recommended:

  • Anyone 50 years of age or older
  • Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday
  • Residents of nursing homes and other facilities that provide care for the chronically ill
  • Anyone who is a household contact or caregiver to children under 6 months old
  • Children and adults who have chronic disorders such as asthma or other pulmonary or cardiovascular conditions
  • Children and adults who require regular medical follow up or hospitalization during the year because of chronic metabolic diseases such as diabetes mellitus
  • Children and teenagers who are on long term aspirin therapy
  • Women who will be in the 2nd or 3rd term of pregnancy at the start of flu season
  • Persons who could transmit the flu virus to those at risk, such as health care providers, care givers or family members
  • Travelers to some foreign countries, depending on the time of year and risk group

If you do "catch a bug", how do you tell which one it is? Take a look at this easy chart as a starting place. Always remember, your doctor is the best person to make a diagnosis, so be sure to contact his/her office with any severe or unusual symptoms.


What are the symptoms? Sore throat; runny nose; nasal congestion; watery eyes; and sneezing are the most common symptoms. Some people may also experience a cough and mild fatigue and body aches Fever, often high and lasting 3-4 days; headache; body aches; severe fatigue lasting up to 2 or 3 weeks; cough, (usually a dry cough) are the most common symptoms. Some people may also experience a runny nose, congestion or sore throat Persistent dry cough or productive cough, fever and chills, difficulty breathing, chest pain, headache
How long does it take from the time of infection until symptoms begin? 1 - 3 days 1 - 3 days 1 - 3 days
How long does it last? 3 - 7 days 1 - 2 weeks Pneumonia can be caused by a virus or bacteria. The duration of the illness will depend on the germ.
How long are people infectious (able to spread the disease)? Varies from 2 days to 3 weeks Up to 7 days from the start of symptoms This is not known for sure, although the theory is that communicability may end within 24 hours of beginning antibiotic treatment.
How is it treated? Colds are caused by a virus, usually a rhinovirus; antibiotics will not help anyone recover from a cold.

We all know this, but, there really is no cure for the cold. The best treatment is to get plenty of rest and drink a lot of liquids. Over-the-counter cough and cold products may offer temporary relief of some of the symptoms.

Flu is caused by a virus; antibiotics will not help anyone recover from the flu.

There are anti-viral medicines available that may help reduce the severity and duration of the flu, but only if started within 48 hours of the start of symptoms. Other treatment includes getting plenty of rest and drinking a lot of liquids. Aspirin or acetaminophen will help reduce fever and muscle aches. Children with the flu should NOT take aspirin.

People with bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics.

People with viral pneumonia usually get well with supportive care (plenty of fluids, rest, good nutrition). Severe viral pneumonia is treated with antiviral medicines. See the doctor if a productive cough or a cough with fever lasts longer than 3 weeks.

What causes it? Colds are caused by any one of hundreds of different viruses. The virus is spread through respiratory drops when a person coughs or sneezes. The large number of viruses that can cause a cold is one reason that a vaccine has not/cannot be developed at this time Influenza is caused by a virus. The virus is spread through respiratory drops when a person coughs or sneezes. There are different types of flu viruses, but the most common are Type A and Type B. There are various strains of each which are usually named after the area where they were first identified. Each year they can change, so that is why people need to get the vaccine each year. Most pneumonia infections are caused by exposure to a common bacteria or virus. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to catch pneumonia.
What can people do to avoid these "bugs"? WASH YOUR HANDS!Frequent hand washing is the best defense against cold viruses. Avoiding crowds, and limiting contact with people who are coughing or sneezing will also help to reduce the chance of getting a cold GET A FLU SHOT!* The shot can't cause the flu. The worst case is that in a very few cases, a person's arm may be a little sore for a few days or, even less likely, the person may feel weak or have a slight fever for a couple of days. Avoiding crowds and frequent hand washing will also help to reduce the risk of getting the flu. PEOPLE AT HIGH RISK SHOULD GET A PNEUMONIA VACCINE!Those at high risk include:

  • people over 65
  • people with chronic respiratory, cardiovascular or liver diseases
  • residents of nursing homes or other long term care facilities
  • anyone who is immune compromised
  • anyone with diabetes
  • premature babies
  • anyone with sickle cell disease

* If you are allergic to eggs, pregnant or have a chronic disease, check with your physician before getting a flu shot.