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How to avoid -- gesundheit! -- the cold and flu

Simple steps keep you healthy during cold and flu season

By Amy Cox

Peak season for flu and cold is usually December to March.
Flu Season
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

(CNN) -- First, it's a scratchy throat. Next, the watery eyes. Then, the dreaded runny nose. Your personal cold and flu season has begun.

"It's probably the sickest I've ever been in my life," says Julie Castelli of Franklin, Tennessee, about her recent illness. "[It felt like] the common cold multiplied by 20."

Odds are you'll catch a cold soon, if you haven't already this season: The average American adult catches about two to four a year. Children get between five and nine each year with preschoolers the most susceptible, according to the Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minnesota.

Flu, while less common, is more severe. On average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized yearly with influenza and flu-related complications. As many as 36,000 Americans die each year from complications of the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

This year's flu season is off to a slow start. The CDC reports sporadic cases, or none at all, around most of the nation. But the situation can quickly change, says one expert.

"Sometimes, things will start in October or November and then other times we don't see activity until January and February," says Dr. Joe Dalovisio, chairman of the infectious disease group at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, Louisiana. "It's just not predictable."

Cold vs. flu

Determining if you have the flu or just a bad cold is the first step in treatment, Dalovisio says.

A cold often includes a runny nose, sneezing and coughing; the flu usually features those same symptoms, but more severe, along with fever, more coughing and more muscle aches, according to Dalovisio. Both come with a feeling of exhaustion.

"Frequently, it's not the issue of 'Can I make it to work?'" he explains. "But 'I can't go to work.' You're just so sick."

Castelli knew she had caught something beyond a cold after her symptoms worsened.

"I know my cold inside and out. I get it two or three times a year. It will be over in a week," she said. "I knew this wasn't a normal cold when the week had passed and I still felt horrible. ... There were about five days where I couldn't even get out of bed."

People who come down with the flu can take prescription medications to reduce the time they're sick -- but only if taken within 48 hours of the first symptom's appearance, according to the American Lung Association. The medicines oseltamivir, zanamivir, amantadine and rimantadine (sold under the brand names Tamiflu, Relenza, Symmetrel and Flumadine, respectively) can lessen flu's severity and length by at least a day, depending on the strain of the flu.

Otherwise, doctors recommend basic treatments for colds and flus: bed rest, plenty of fluids, aspirin or acetaminophen for fevers and headaches and over-the-counter medication to temporarily relieve symptoms.

No conclusive evidence exists to show herbal remedies or homemade cures help speed up the healing process. But Dalovisio said if mom's chicken soup or doses of zinc make a patient feel nurtured, then it's helpful.

Andrea Buhr of Marietta, Georgia, agrees. If she or her sons get sick, Buhr says, certain comforting treatments are always on hand to stifle runny noses and soothe sore throats.

"[We] like chicken soup, tea with honey and lemon, cough drops -- and packs and packs of soft tissue."

Prevention is key

The best treatment, Dalovisio says, is prevention. Simple steps can help stave off the worst of the cold and flu season.

Although there is no vaccine for the common cold, the flu vaccine is one of the top weapons against influenza. A flu vaccine shortage this year, however, will prevent many from taking that step. Heath officials advise only those in high-risk groups to get the vaccine. (Vaccine shortage a global crisis, Why no cure for the common cold?)

But there is still plenty that the average person can do to ward off germs.

Over-the-counter medicines can relieve symptoms of the cold and flu, but doctors also recommend plenty of rest.

"Most cold and flu viruses are spread by hand-to-mouth type [contact] rather than airborne," Dalovisio says. He advises avoiding crowded situations like cocktail or office parties if you really want to avoid colds.

"[At these events,] you shake hands, then you eat your chip and dip, and then you shake somebody else's hand. It's the perfect scenario to get sick," he says. But he doesn't mean to scare people into becoming a recluse, he adds.

Good, old-fashioned hand-washing is also one of the best preventative measures a person can take.

"People ask me, 'As an infectious disease doctor, don't you get sick a lot?'" he explains. "And I tell them: 'No, I don't' because I wash my hands before and after every patient.'"

Buhr has instilled the hand-washing habit in her sons, calling that one of the reasons the family doesn't get sick very often. During cold and flu season, "I really step up the hand-washing routine reminders," she says.

Cleaning a desk at work, school or home may also eliminate lurking germs. Rhinoviruses that cause colds can survive up to three hours, so cleaning surfaces with disinfectant may help stop infections, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Is your desk making you sick?)

And if you do get sick, experts say don't play the martyr and come into work -- if you do, you'll only make everyone around you miserable, too.

"Unfortunately, there are some people who will try to go to work with the flu and spread it around," Dalovisio says.

Common sense precautions are simple, but they may mean the difference between spending weeks sick in bed or sailing through the cold and flu season without a sniffle.

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