Get the facts about the cold and flu

Published 3:59 pm Friday, January 17, 2020

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Although colds and flu can be contracted any time of the year, winter tends to be a prime time for cold and flu outbreaks, as more time spent indoors in close proximity to others provides an easy way for viruses to pass from one person to another.

Despite how common these illnesses can be, there seems to be no shortage of misinformation concerning prevention and treatment of the viruses. Those who think they know all about a cold or the flu can still benefit from a refresher course, which may even debunk some prevailing myths about both ailments.


Colds are relatively minor infections of the throat and nose that are caused by more than 200 different viruses. Rhinovirus is the most common cause, which accounts for between 10 and 40% of infections, advises the American Lung Association (ALA). Adults get an average of two to four colds per year, while children suffer six to eight colds annually. In fact, in the United States, colds account for more visits to the doctor than any other condition, says the ALA.

Colds are contracted from inhalation of microscopic particles in the air or from contact with contaminated surfaces. Symptoms can include runny nose, sneezing and nasal congestion, often with sore throat, mild cough, mild aches/ fatigue, and fever in youngsters.


The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by the influenza virus. It infects the throat, nose and sometimes the lungs, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like colds, the flu also can be spread through tiny droplets made when infected individuals cough, sneeze or talk, or by touching infected surfaces.

One common misconception about the flu is that it can be contracted from the flu vaccine. This is not true. Harvard Medical School says the flu shot is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection. People who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway, as it takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine. Many people assume that because they became sick after getting the vaccine, the flu shot caused their illness.

Even though the flu and colds share some symptoms, such as runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness, and cough, the flu is not just a bad cold. While very few people have landed in the hospital with a cold, the flu can be so severe as to require hospitalization.

Steering clear of people who are sick, frequently washing hands, sterilizing common surfaces, and getting the flu shot are ways to prevent illness. Antibiotics are not effective against the cold and flu, and antiviral medication can lessen the effects and shorten the duration of flu but may not be able to prevent it.

The ALA notes that herbal and mineral products have received a lot of publicity as cold and flu remedies, but insists that such claims are not solidly supported by science. If symptoms do not abate, see a doctor.