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Brace Yourselves: Cold and Flu Season Is Just around the Corner

September 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

by Mommy MD Guide Jennifer Gardner, MD

The autumn color show arrives soon, but with it comes the misery of cold and flu season. Both illnesses are caused by viruses that spread quickly from October through May, but the flu is typically much worse and lasts much longer than the common cold.

For some, flu means a respiratory illness so powerful that it keeps you in bed for a week or more. For others, it can mean a hospital visit. And for the most unfortunate, it can mean death, so prevention efforts must be taken seriously. Those at highest risk are young children, adults older than 50, and individuals with a chronic illness or weakened immune system.

The flu virus changes each year, so even if you’ve been exposed to it before or received a previous vaccination against it, you are still at risk for flu this season.

How Do You Tell the Difference between a Cold and the Flu?

Cold: Gradual onset (over days) of symptoms including hacking (productive) cough, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, sore throat, and excess mucus production. (Fatigue, headaches, and body aches are rare with colds and, if present, are only mild.)

Complications: ear infection, sinus congestion, or sinus infection

Flu: More abrupt onset (over hours) of the same symptoms, but also high fever (lasting several days), chills, dry (unproductive) cough, severe headache, body aches, weakness, extreme fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, and chest congestion. Sneezing, stuffy nose, and sore throat are rare.

Complications: bronchitis or pneumonia

Can You Treat the Cold or Flu with Antibiotics?

NO. Each is caused by a virus, which is not killed or affected by antibiotics. Once you catch the flu, your best option is to monitor the symptoms and treat them with the tools available—antiviral flu medications can help, but these are best taken within 48 hours of onset. Check with your physician to make sure that these medications are suitable for individual members of your family.

Soup, plenty of fluids including warm tea with honey, over-the-counter cold medicine, humidifiers, saline nasal sprays (for congestion and stuffiness), salt water gargle (for sore throat), cough drops, and rest provide the remaining tools. Never give a child medications containing aspirin. Always check cold medications for acetaminophen (Tylenol) before giving additional Tylenol for fever.

What Doesn’t Work?

  • Antihistamines (these treat the runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing associated with allergies, but have the exact opposite effect with cold and flu symptoms by drying out mucous membranes)
  • Nasal decongestant (temporary relief followed by worsened rebound congestion)
  • Cough medicine (Most are not particularly effective unless they contain codeine. I recommend that you let kids cough to expectorate mucus unless it is preventing sleep.)
  • Not eating (Turns out the old adage “starve a cold, feed a fever” is not sage advice!)

Should I Stay or Should I Go?


GO to School or Work

FEVER (child should have no fever for at least 24 hours without a fever-reducer before returning to school) NO FEVER (less than 99.6º oral) or mild   fever in a child who is otherwise active (less than 101º oral)
Productive, deep, or uncontrollable cough Nonproductive cough
Sore throat (very painful, difficulty swallowing) Mild sore throat
Less than 24 hours on antibiotics (if prescribed) More than 24 hours on antibiotics (if prescribed)
Thick, green or yellow nasal discharge Mild runny nose
Moderate to extreme fatigue Active or just mild fatigue
Flu Mild common cold
Vomiting or diarrhea


Remember, if you send your child to school with mild symptoms, be sure to send along hand sanitizer with instructions to use frequently, especially after coughing, sneezing, or handling a tissue. Your child should also be reminded to cough into the crux of the elbow, not the hands.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine!

The flu virus spreads many ways: directly by coughing, sneezing, or personal contact and indirectly by touching something harboring the virus and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. Viruses can remain infectious for more than 2 hours on surfaces such as phones, doorknobs, water fountain nozzles, desks, and tables!

Below are some proven methods for avoiding the flu virus.

  1. Wash hands regularly: Washing hands regularly and keeping hands clean is one of the best ways to avoid catching the flu and transmitting the virus. Make sure to have everyone in the house wash his or her hands for at least 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice). Sanitizing hand wipes and gels work well too.
  2. Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth: Cold and flu viruses are often spread through contact with these mucous membranes. Kids do this much more frequently than adults, so keep an eye on them.
  3. Use the crook of your elbow to cover coughs or sneezes: After using a tissue, throw it away, and wash your hands as soon as possible. This applies to everyone in the house.
  4. Don’t go to school or work sick: Whenever possible, stay home, and keep your kids at home until symptoms are gone for at least 24 hours.
  5. Clean work and home surfaces regularly: Computer keyboards, books, binders, desktops, phones, and pens can all harbor 21,000 germs per square inch. Compare this with a toilet that contains 49 per square inch. Keep some disinfectant wipes around to eliminate these infectious agents on a regular basis. Have your kids take sanitizing gels or wipes with them to school.
  6. Get flu shots for you and your kids: Flu vaccine is typically available between October and December, the earlier the better. Contact your healthcare provider to determine if you and your kids should get a shot. If so, you may be able to get it at some pharmacies.
  7. Stay healthy: Get your needed sleep (at least 7 hours), eat healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of fluids (60 ounces of water per day is recommended), limit your stress, and stay physically active.

What If a Classmate Appears Sick?

Unfortunately, there is little to do if it does not violate school policy. But I recommend that you teach your child to walk away from someone who is coughing or sneezing (most viral organisms do not travel more than 3 feet), and provide sanitizing alcohol for your child to use frequently.

You can also teach your child to wipe surfaces with alcohol wipes or gels during the cold and flu season (desks, lunch tables, computers, borrowed pens). And of course, being up to date on all immunizations (flu, whooping cough, measles) can give you piece of mind.

Dr. Gardner is a mom of a three-year-old son, a pediatrician, and the founder of an online child wellness and weight management company, HealthyKidsCompany.com, in Washington, DC.

Want to read more blogs by Mommy MD Guide Jennifer Gardner, MD? Here’s her recent blog about making sure your kids eat healthy meals at school.

The information on MommyMDGuides.com is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, and services of a physician. Always consult your physician or child care expert if you have any questions concerning your family's health. For severe or life-threatening conditions, seek immediate medical attention.