October 24, 2002

Cold and flu season - What to do

It's colorless, it's odorless, it's everywhere and it's out to get you. It's a virus. The cold and flu season is almost here. The following are some guidelines for preventing a cold and flu and what to do in case it's more than a simple ailment, from William Norcross, M.D., Professor, UCSD Family and Preventive Medicine.


The common cold hits a large portion of the population at least once a year but hits hardest during the winter. A cold is a viral infection called viral rhinitis that includes nasal congestion, a clear runny nose, sneezing, headache, and a scratchy throat. The common cold is caused by a number of viruses that can also cause laryngitis or bronchitis by infecting the larynx or bronchial tubes in the lungs.

People who are in good health usually don't have to see a doctor for a common cold. These viruses do not respond to antibiotics. The large number of different virus strains makes the chances of an effective vaccine difficult. Rhinovirus grows well at low temperatures, such as those found in the nose and rarely in the trachea or lungs. A typical common cold will last three to four days; a mild secondary bacterial infection often prolongs this to a week or longer. During this time it isn't necessary to see the doctor unless there is:

When it's more than a cold, seek medical help when the following symptoms are present:

To cut down the risk of catching a cold, keep your distance from people who have colds, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. Avoid touching your nose or eyes because viruses invade the body through the nasal mucous membranes or travel down the tear ducts in the eyes.

There is no proven treatment for a cold, but for adolescents and adults drinking about eight glasses of fluid daily and getting plenty of bed rest will help. Try not to get overly tired or overly stressed.

Over-the-counter medications for cold sufferers include decongestants, which can ease nasal congestion; aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be used to relieve aches and pains; and lozenges, sprays and mouthwashes may soothe the throat.

For infants and preschool children home treatments can include clearing the nose with a bulb syringe (ask your pediatrician), using warm humidified air to alleviate congestion, and increasing fluid intake.

Treatment for the common cold (when other health problems are not involved) can be simple and effective without seeing a physician.


Influenza, or as it is more commonly called, the flu, is a catchall phrase for not feeling well. Influenza is an infection of the respiratory tract that usually occurs from November to January.

Influenza usually infects many people at once with the largest group being school children. However, the greatest risk to health occurs in young children, people over 65 years of age, immunosuppressed people, and those with chronic diseases.

The most common complication of influenza is pneumonia. It is recommended that elderly patients receive a Pneumococcal vaccination when appropriate. Pneumococcal immunization can be given at the same time as influenza immunization with no increased risk of side effects.

"The most important thing for people to do to prevent the flu (due to influenza virus) is to get vaccinated on a yearly basis. That's what I do for my family and myself," said Leland Rickman, M.D., Medical Director, UCSD Epidemiology Unit, Department of Medicine.

It is recommended that everyone from infants to the elderly be vaccinated against influenza (flu). Recent studies showed that elderly patients who received the flu vaccine showed a 48 percent reduction in incidence of hospitalization or death.

"Influenza vaccine does not cause the flu or any other illness, " said Dr. Norcross. "It is made from killed virus, and is incapable of infecting anyone."

According to Dr. Norcross, this issue has been  formally evaluated in research, and patients receiving flu vaccine have no higher incidence of colds, bronchitis, or other illness than patients receiving placebo. The reason people believe that flu vaccine causes illness is because the vaccine is usually given in October and November, which is the beginning of the cold virus season. People who get sick recall having received the flu vaccine, and attribute their illness, incorrectly, to the flu shot.

Failure to receive influenza vaccine can be a fatal mistake, especially in older people and those with chronic medical illnesses like heart disease and chronic lung disease. Being immunized with the flu vaccine could prevent about 80 to 90 percent of these deaths, said Dr. Norcross.

Symptoms of influenza are headaches, muscle aches, fever (101 to 102 degrees), sneezing, fatigue, and possibly a runny nose. Even though a person feels very sick, it rarely leads to more serious complications, except in those persons that are high-risk.

Treatment is simpleóbed rest; drink extra fluids (one eight ounce glass of water or juice every hour); and take Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen to relieve head and muscle aches. (Avoid aspirin for children and adolescents.)

See a physician if:

The influenza immunization is the best protection against contracting the flu. Additionally, avoiding peak hours at shopping malls, markets, theaters, or crowded places during the flu season can help.

Immunize San Diego is a countywide campaign with the Community Health Improvement Partners (CHIP), a collaboration of hospitals, nonprofit organizations and health care agencies, to provide medically at risk residents with flu and pheumococcal immunizations.

In addition to consulting your personal physician the CHIP website also provides information about immunizations at www.immunization-sd.org

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Media Contact:
Eileen Callahan

UCSD Health Sciences Communications HealthBeat: http://health.ucsd.edu/news/