September 5, 2015

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Cold & Flu FAQs

Reviewed by John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

Take the Cold & Flu Quiz First! Before reading this FAQ, challenge yourself and
Test your Knowledge!

Q:The common cold is also known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection. True or false?

A:True.

The common cold is also known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection. Over 200 different viruses can cause the common cold. Adults get an average of two to three colds per year, and children get even more.

Colds are the most common reason children miss school and adults miss work (parents most often catch colds from their children). The result is a cost of $40 billion dollars annually, in the form of lost work and money spent on cold remedies, according to a University of Michigan study.

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Q:The flu virus is generally carried on the hands and is transmitted by hand-to-hand contact. True or false?

A:False.

The common cold and the flu are two different illnesses, spread in different ways.

People who have a common cold usually carry the virus on their hands. The virus may remain alive on the skin for up to two hours, and if a sick person touches another person's hand, and that second person touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, the virus can be transmitted, infecting that second person. This is why hand washing is essential to prevent the spread of the common cold virus.

The flu, however, is spread through the air - mainly when people with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. The droplets they emit may land in the mouths or noses of those nearby. In some cases, these droplets can remain alive on a surface. A person can get the flu by touching a surface covered with droplets that contain the flu virus and then touching their eye, nose, or mouth.

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Q:You should expect your doctor to prescribe antibiotics for standard cold or flu symptoms. True or false?

A:False.

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, so they would not be useful in treating the common cold or flu, which are viral infections.

Antibiotics are not a magic cure-all, and if taken when not needed you may feel worse because you could experience side effects including diarrhea, rash, nausea, and stomach pain. In addition you may have rare side effects such as life-threatening allergic reactions, kidney toxicity, and severe skin reactions.

When you take an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, the antibiotic not only takes care of the bacteria that may be making you ill – it can also kill off the bacteria that normally live in your body (such as on the skin, in the intestines, in your mouth and nose, etc.). The more often you take antibiotics, the more likely you are to build antibiotic resistance, and common antibiotics will no longer be able to kill infections caused by resistant germs.

Only take antibiotics if prescribed by your doctor for a bacterial infection, and take the full course as directed.

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Q:The "stomach flu" is caused by the influenza B strain. True or false?

A:False.

The "stomach flu" is a catch-all term often used to describe any illness where you have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, but these are rarely symptoms of the flu itself. These abdominal symptoms may be due to different viruses, bacteria, or even parasites. While the flu can occasionally cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, especially in children, the flu is mainly a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal illness.

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Q:Bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, and sinus infections are complications of both cold and flu. True or false?

A:True.

Bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, and sinus infections are complications of the common cold and the flu. Other complications specific to the flu may include dehydration, worsening of other chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. In severe cases, the flu can lead to death.

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Q:At the peak of the season, 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. True or false?

A:True.

In the peak flu season in the Unites States during the fall and winter, as many as 20% of the population gets the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The flu season starts as early as October, peaks in January or February, and can last until as late as May.

More than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized annually for complications caused by the seasonal influenza virus, including respiratory illness.

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Q:Cold sores are caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. True or false?

A:False.

Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are caused by the Herpes simplex virus, which is not in the same family of viruses that cause the common cold. Herpes simplex is a recurring skin infection that hides in nerve endings and is never completely removed from the body, which is why the cold sores return over and over again. Cold sores are highly contagious.

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Q:Of the 200+ viruses linked to the common cold, what is the most prevalent type?

A:Over 200 different viruses can cause the common cold, but the most prevalent one is the rhinovirus.

When the nose and sinuses become infected with a cold virus, the nasal passages produce clear mucus to help clear the nose and sinuses of the infection-causing germs. After a few days, the body's immune system begins to fight back, producing white or yellow-colored mucus. As the natural bacteria that live in the nose begin to grow back, they can turn the color of the mucus green. This is normal. Since the common cold is caused by viruses, antibiotics are ineffective at treating it.

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Q:What is the name of medications prescribed to fight the flu?

A:Medications to treat and fight flu are called antiviral medications.

These are prescription drugs available in pill, liquid, inhaled powder, and intravenously that help fight the flu virus. Your doctor can give you a prescription for antiviral medications if necessary. Antiviral drugs are not the same as antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections.

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Q:The best way to prevent a cold is to regularly wash or sanitize your hands. True or false?

A:True.

One of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of cold viruses is to regularly wash or sanitize your hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other steps you can take to help protect yourself from getting sick include:
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth to prevent spreading the germs to your body.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick when possible.
- Maintain healthy habits such as getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy and balanced diet, drinking plenty of fluids, and managing stress.
- If you cough or sneeze, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue to prevent droplets from spreading to others or surfaces, and dispose of the tissue in the trash after use.
- If you feel sick with flu-like symptoms, stay at home for at least 24 hours after the fever has gone away without use of fever-reducing medications.

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Q:Flu viruses are spread though a "droplet spread" that is propelled three feet. True or false?

A:True.

"Droplet spread" is when respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing are propelled through the air and spread germs from person to person when they deposit on the mouth or nose of someone nearby. Flu viruses are spread though a "droplet spread" that is propelled up to 3 feet. These droplets can also land on objects or surfaces, and when another person touches an object or surface with droplets and then touches their own mouth or nose before washing their hands they may contract the virus.

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