Cold and Flu Season Returns

Fall brings with it a lot of great things – Friday night football games, color changing foliage, and trips to the pumpkin patch. Unfortunately, it also brings the start of cold and flu season (and quite a lot of gray, drizzly weather this year). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity usually starts to pick up in October and can continue as late as May with peak activity commonly hitting around February. Now is a great time to review how cold and flu viruses spread to help prevent yourself from getting sick, along with how to tell the difference between the viruses.

Sharing is not always caring.

The common cold and flu are both viral respiratory illnesses that can be spread through the air and close personal contact with an infected person. They are thought to be most commonly transmitted by airborn droplets when someone with the flu or a cold coughs, sneezes, or talks. It may also be tranferred by touching a surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. Flu symptoms can begin 1-4 days after a person is first infected and they may spread the infection during this period without symptoms. Cold symptoms likewise usually begin in 1-3 days.

It’s best to take preventive measures whether or not you believe you’ve been in contact with an infected person. The following habits can help prevent you from catching these illnesses:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds – an alcohol based hand sanitizer will work when you cannot wash your hands
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, especially your eyes, nose, mouth
  • Stay away from people who are sick
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that infected people may touch, like door handles, phones, and work surfaces
  • Receive an annual flu vaccination, preferably before the end of October

If you are experiencing symptoms, stay home and limit your contact with other people as much as possible. Cover your nose and mouth when your cough or sneeze, immediately throw away any used tissues, and wash your hands thoroughly.

Is it a cold or the flu?

Some cold and flu symptoms can be similar, but there are a few differences that can help you tell them apart and appropriately treat your illness. The chart below from the CDC gives a helpful overview of the differences between symptoms.

Treatment Options

If you have the flu and your symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can help you feel better sooner. If you’re not sure if you should see a doctor for your symptoms, you can always call your provider’s office and ask to speak to your care team about your concerns. Antiviral treatments for the flu are usually most effective when prescribed early, so getting prompt care can be important. If you begin to experience shortness of breath, this can be a sign that the flu is progressing into pneumonia. In this case you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

If you have a cold or believe you have the flu, but your symptoms are relatively mild, you may only need to recuperate at home. Be sure to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Some over the counter medications may help you feel more comfortable, but will not shorten the length of your illness. Especially with the flu, you should stay home and away from other people until you are fever-free without taking fever reducing medication for 24 hours.


We thank the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the information in this article.