Q: I don’t understand why I need to get a flu shot. I’ve gotten flu shots annually for the last 5 yrs and I caught colds anyway.
A: The flu shot does not prevent colds. Many people confuse having the flu with having a cold. Colds and flus are caused by different viruses.
The flu actually refers to influenza. There are many different strains of both cold and flu viruses, and these viruses are constantly mutating and changing. That’s why the flu shot has to be formulated differently from year to year, and the effectiveness of the vaccine varies.
There are no vaccines against colds. The best prevention against colds is frequent use of hand sanitizer or hand washing, and avoiding the secretions of sick people.
Colds are also known as the common cold or an acute upper respiratory infection (URI).
Many of the symptoms of colds and flus are similar, but in general, the symptoms of the flu (influenza) are much more intense, and come on more suddenly.
Symptoms of both influenza and colds include cough, sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue.
Muscle aches, high fever, and prominent headaches are more characteristic of the flu.
Sneezing, watery eyes, and nasal congestion are more common with colds.
Treatment of the common cold and uncomplicated influenza is mostly symptomatic.
Because they are both viral infections, antibiotics are not useful for treatment. Antibiotics can do more harm than good by creating strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria that will be harder to treat if you ever become infected with them.
There are effective prescription antiviral medications to treat flu viruses, but they work best if started within the first 48 hrs. of onset of symptoms.
Antiviral medications against the flu are particularly important for people who are at higher risk of developing complications. People who are more likely to develop complications include people over 65, young children, pregnant women, alcoholics, smokers, and anyone with chronic medical conditions.
Complications of the flu can range from developing serious bacterial infections, pneumonia, or even death. Influenza and pneumonia are the sixth most common causes of death in adults in the USA. So get vaccinated unless your doctor says you shouldn’t.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises flu shots annually for anyone 6 months of age or older.
An average cold lasts about ten days and resolves on its own.
Symptomatic treatments for the common cold are generally safe but ask your doctor or pharmacist for recommendations if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or are on other medications.
Be sure to read the ingredients because many cough and cold combination preparations contain acetaminophen, and you don’t want to unknowingly take additional acetaminophen and risk overdosing.
Ibuprofen is actually proven to be better for symptoms of fever, pain, and sneezing if you have no contraindications to taking it.
Acetaminophen may be more effective for nasal symptoms.
Decongestants with or without antihistamines, and short term use of nasal oxymetazoline spray (for no longer than three days) are effective for nasal congestion. Nasal ipratropium spray is proven to help with cough symptoms associated with upper respiratory infections.
Surprisingly, the American College of Chest Physicians does not recommend cough suppressants or expectorants.
Nasal steroids are not effective for colds. Zinc acetate or zinc gluconate lozenges may reduce nasal discharge and cough if started within the first few days of a cold. Nasal zinc should be avoided as it can result in permanent loss of smell.
Taking probiotics on a regular basis may shorten the length of colds when you get infected. The symptomatic treatment of colds is different in children.
If you develop severe symptoms, difficulty breathing, worsening of cough, chest pain, severe muscle pains, lethargy, extreme weakness or high fever, you may have developed a complication and should seek medical care right away.