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Healthy for life: Cold and flu season

Respiratory illnesses ramp up in winter. Here’s your guide to protecting yourself from seasonal bugs and strengthening your immune system.

  1. Is there a peak cold and flu season?
  2. How can I tell the difference between a cold and the flu?
  3. What medications can I take to treat a cold or the flu?
  4. What can I do to lower my chances of catching a cold or the flu?
  5. What can I eat to help prevent colds and flu?
  6. Are there any supplements I can take to help prevent or treat colds and flu?
  7. Should I get a flu shot to help prevent the flu?

Colds can feel inevitable at this time of year. The average adult gets 2 to 3 colds a year, and kids get them even more often. Add about 8% of Americans to that equation who get the flu each year.

Plus, you may also be at risk of catching other respiratory illnesses. Depending on your age, those could turn into something more serious and even lead to a hospitalization.

Here’s what you need to know about these respiratory ailments and how to treat them, as well as how to keep your immunity in tip-top shape throughout cold and flu season.

Is there a peak cold and flu season?

Yes. The flu is most common during the fall and winter. Flu season peaks between December and February and can extend into May. Other respiratory viruses also peak at this time of year.

But “there’s no true peak cold season — you can catch a cold all year long,” explains William Li, M.D. He’s the president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Eat to Beat Disease.

That said, colds are more common in the winter months. “As temperatures drop, more people gather indoors, where viruses can spread in close quarters,” says Dr. Li. He adds that drier winter air can also contribute to an uptick in cases. That’s because it’s easier for viruses to invade your nasal passages when they are less moist.

When you’re not feeling your best, you can talk to a doctor. Get coverage for that visit and more by exploring a health plan for you or your family. Explore your insurance options now, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.

How can I tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

Both have similar symptoms, but there are some key differences. “Colds tend to be upper respiratory infections affecting you from the neck up,” says Neil Schachter, M.D. He’s a professor of pulmonary medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and the author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. Cold symptoms often include a stuffy nose, sneezing and/or a sore throat. Fever, chills and body aches are less common with colds.

The flu tends to be a more serious illness, notes Dr. Schachter, with symptoms affecting the whole body. And its symptoms often come on suddenly, whereas cold symptoms come on more slowly. Common flu symptoms include:

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Cough and chest discomfort
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

A cold or the flu does not usually require a trip to the doctor. But you may want to call your doctor in the following situations:

  • Your symptoms are severe or unusual.
  • You’re not feeling better after 10 days.
  • You’re at a high risk of serious flu complications, and you’re experiencing symptoms such as a fever, chills and body aches.

There are tests to diagnose the flu, but your doctor may diagnose it based on symptoms alone. They may also run tests to rule out other illnesses.

You’ll also want to be on the lookout for symptoms of other respiratory viruses, which often mimic other respiratory illnesses such as the cold and flu. These symptoms include:

  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Sore throat

The symptoms of RSV, on the other hand, are usually mild and cold-like. But depending on your age, it may turn into something more serious. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you think you might be experiencing symptoms of any of these viruses. They can help get you on the path to feeling better.

Skip a trip to the doctor with virtual care from the comfort of your own home. Explore your telehealth options, now or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 for more information.

What medications can I take to treat a cold or the flu?

There is no cure for colds or the flu. “Your body’s immune response will get you through most colds and flus,” says Dr. Li. But there are many over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can help relieve symptoms.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can help lower a fever and relieve sinus pressure and body aches. But unless it’s causing you a lot of discomfort, you don’t need to treat a fever. In fact, a fever actually helps your body fight off the infection. But if your fever is consistently higher than 103 degrees and does not lower with medicine, or if it lasts longer than 3 days, you should call your doctor.
  • Antihistamines may help relieve a runny nose, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes. Because antihistamines make you sleepy, they are often found in nighttime cold medicines.
  • Coughs can be treated with suppressants or expectorants. Suppressants block your cough reflex. Expectorants thin your mucus, making it easier to clear from your throat and sinuses. Keep in mind that coughing is your body’s way of getting mucus out of your lungs, so use a suppressant only if your cough is keeping you awake or becomes too painful.
  • Nasal saline sprays can help relieve a stuffy nose. Dr. Schachter cautions against decongestant tablets that contain phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine because they can raise your blood pressure. Nasal sprays that contain these drugs may be initially effective — but after a while, they can cause rebound congestion that makes you feel worse. OTC cold and flu medicines usually contain a combination of these drugs. Read the package label carefully to understand what’s in it.

Not all of these medicines are safe for everyone. If you take other prescriptions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which OTC medicines are safe for you. And ask your doctor or pharmacist about which OTC medicines are safe for young children. Dr. Schachter adds that if you take more than one of these combination medicines, you should make sure that you are not taking the same ingredients twice, as it may lead to unwanted side effects.

What about antiviral medicines?

If you do have the flu, you can ask your doctor about a prescription antiviral treatment. Antivirals can shorten sick time by a day or two and prevent serious flu complications, such as pneumonia. They are most effective if they are taken during the first 48 hours of the illness, says Dr. Schachter. Antivirals are a good idea for people who have a high risk of serious flu complications, such as:

  • People ages 65 and older
  • People with underlying health conditions, such as
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Pregnant women
  • Young children

Keep in mind that antibiotics will not work for a cold or the flu because those illnesses are caused by viruses.

What home remedies can help treat colds and flu?

Most people can get over a cold or the flu without any medication. Getting plenty of rest and drinking a lot of fluids is the first line of treatment. Other simple home remedies can help as well. Some suggestions:

  • Use a humidifier. Moist air helps break up mucus, making it easier to cough it up. It can also relieve a runny nose as well as general discomfort in your nasal passages. Try running a humidifier at night or breathing steam from a hot shower or a bowl of hot water.
  • Gargling salt water can relieve a sore throat, says Dr. Schachter. Sucking on throat lozenges, hard candy or popsicles can also relieve throat pain.
  • Honey has been shown to be effective at relieving coughs in young children. Added to hot water with lemon, it can also relieve a sore throat and break up mucus.
  • Chicken soup. Beyond being comforting, chicken soup can actually help relieve cold symptoms. Dr. Schachter says that research has shown it to have anti-inflammatory effects. In addition, the steam from a hot bowl of soup can help break up mucus. And chicken soup is also a good source of fluids and salt that can help keep you hydrated. Plus, it’s a balanced meal with carbs, protein and healthy fats that is easy to eat when you’re not feeling well.

What can I do to lower my chances of catching a cold or the flu?

It is possible to avoid catching a cold. There’s plenty you can do to protect yourself and boost your immune system. The first step is to limit your exposure to viruses. Avoid contact with people who are sick. Wearing a mask in crowded places, such as public transportation, may help protect you.

You’ll also want to wash your hands frequently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), washing your hands can help prevent the spread of viral infections. But be sure to do it correctly:

  • Scrub your hands for about 20 seconds with warm or cold water.
  • Be sure to get under your fingernails.
  • Dry your hands with a clean paper towel.
  • Turn off the faucet and open the door with the paper towel to avoid picking up more germs.
  • If you don’t have soap and water readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

There are also things you can do to strengthen your immune system so that it can fight off infections more effectively.

  • Quit smoking. “Smoking hinders your innate immune system, the barrier defenses that protect against viruses and bacteria,” says Dr. Schachter. It also makes it harder for your airways to clear away mucus, which contains germs.
  • Limit the booze. Drinking too much alcohol can weaken your immune system.
  • Get a handle on stress. Ever wonder why you always seem to come down with a nasty cold when you’re stressed? “Stress can depress your immune system,” says Dr. Li. “Even routine annoyances, like traffic jams, are linked to infection,” adds Dr. Schachter. Dr. Li recommends meditation, exercise and socializing to lower stress.
  • Get plenty of sleep. “Your immune system recharges while you are sleeping,” says Dr. Li. And research shows that sleep loss can hurt your immune system.
  • Stay active. Exercise boosts the number of T cells in your body, and T cells help your immune system fight infections, says Dr. Schachter. Exercise can also help you sleep better, experience less stress and maintain a healthy weight — all things that strengthen immunity.

What can I eat to help prevent colds and flu?

Eating a healthy diet can also help your immune system. A balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean protein and healthy fats will provide all the nutrients you need for a strong immune system.

Eating foods that promote gut health is also important. Believe it or not, the microbes in your gut play an important role in maintaining your immune system. A high-fiber, plant-rich diet supports the growth of good microbes in your gut, while diets high in processed foods, refined sugar and red meat can increase harmful bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods and drinks are great for gut health. Those include:

  • Kefir
  • Yogurt with live active cultures
  • Fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi
  • Tempeh
  • Kombucha tea
  • Miso

Are there any supplements I can take to help prevent or treat colds and flu?

Here’s a look at 3 common supplements often touted as being helpful against respiratory bugs.

  • Zinc. The National Institutes of Health says that zinc, a micronutrient, may help treat colds. But it can cause side effects and interact with certain medicines, so talk to your doctor first. Oral zinc is available over the counter as a lozenge, tablet or syrup. Research shows that oral zinc can help reduce the length of a cold if you take it within 24 hours of the start of your symptoms. Don’t use intranasal products, which have been linked to permanent loss of the sense of smell.
  • Echinacea. This herb belongs to the daisy family and has been used for centuries to treat colds. But research on it has been mixed. “It may stimulate immune cells to gobble up bacteria and viruses. But clinical trials have failed to demonstrate significant benefits,” says Dr. Schachter. While it’s considered safe for short-term use in most adults, some people may develop an allergic reaction to it, such as a rash.
  • Vitamin C. Research shows that this popular go-to remedy isn’t actually that effective. Taking vitamin C supplements has not been shown to prevent colds. It might help you get over a cold a little bit faster, but not by much. And avoid megadoses — they’re not effective, and they can cause stomach problems.

Should I get a flu shot to help prevent the flu?

Yes. Here are a few reasons:

  • It can prevent you from getting the flu. During the 2022–2023 flu season, the CDC estimated that flu vaccinations prevented about 6 million cases of the flu, 2.9 million flu-related medical visits, 65,000 hospitalizations and 3,700 deaths.
  • If you do get the flu, you’re much less likely to get very sick. One study found that vaccinated adults hospitalized with the flu had a 26% lower risk of intensive care admission and a 31% lower risk of death compared with unvaccinated adults.
  • It can help prevent other chronic health conditions from getting worse. The flu itself can worsen heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes. The flu vaccine helps protect against that.
  • It can protect your unborn baby. If you’re pregnant, the flu vaccine won’t just protect you — your infant will also be protected for several months after they are born, until they are old enough to get vaccinated.
  • It protects the people around you. Even if you are not at high risk of flu complications, you could pass the flu on to other people who are. Vaccination reduces the spread of the illness, which can help protect the most vulnerable people.

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccination every year. For most people, September or October is a good time to get vaccinated. The vaccine takes about 2 weeks to become fully effective, so be sure to get it well in advance of holiday travel and gatherings. If you’re not up to date with your other boosters or vaccines, it’s a good idea to get those at the same time too.

Need a health plan for you or your family? Explore your options now, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.

For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthOne and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.


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