The Holiday Rush of Colds and Flu is On

Jeff Desmond, M.D, already knows what hes getting for Christmas: hundreds of people with colds and flu coming to see him and his staff at the University of Michigan hospital emergency room.


Some of them will need medical help for especially bad infections. But most of them would probably have been better off at home, in bed, with a cup of hot soup and a blanket. And many of them probably could have avoided getting sick in the first place, if people only followed simple tips to keep from spreading germs.


This years holiday rush of colds and flu may be especially bad, Desmond predicts, because of the shortage of flu vaccine. Even if unvaccinated people dont get sick themselves, they can get a mild infection and spread the flu virus to others. The same goes for colds.


In other words, at holiday parties, family get-togethers, and anywhere people gather at this festive time of year, viruses may be spreading faster than Christmas cheer.


But there are simple and specific things you can do to keep yourself from getting or giving this most unwelcome holiday gift, says Desmond. And if you do get a cold or the flu, there are some basic things to know about taking care of yourself and your loved ones including when to go to the ER.


Avoiding spreading colds or influenza this season is going to be particularly important, in light of the recent flu vaccine shortage, says Desmond, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the U-M Medical School and service chief for adult emergency medicine at the U-M Health System.


Both the common cold and influenza are spread by respiratory droplets sneezing, coughing, or hand contact with another person after touching nose or mouth secretions, he explains. Both of them are viral illnesses, and both are caused by several types of viruses.


Desmond says a lot of people dont know how to tell a cold and the flu apart, though the two diseases are very different. Colds typically cause problems in the upper part of the breathing system, including congested and runny noses, coughs, and low-grade fevers. Flu, on the other hand, strikes harder and more broadly, including sore throats, muscle aches throughout the body, coughing, headaches and fever. It tends to hit all of a sudden, like a ton of bricks, while colds are more gradual.


And despite what you might hear people saying about stomach flu, or rumors of a flu that causes vomiting and diarrhea, those are not symptoms caused by the influenza virus though there are other common viruses that can cause those effects.


The flu also tends to have a pretty specific season, overlapping with the major December holidays. The flu season really runs from November into early March, with the peak in late December into January, says Desmond. Colds can go around any time, though they do tend to spread faster and more widely in late fall and early winter.


But no matter what virus is going around, the important thing is to do everything you can to keep from getting it or giving it.


Stay home if you feel ill, cover your nose or mouth while youre coughing or sneezing, wash your hands frequently, and avoid contact between your hands and your face or eyes, Desmond advises. If you cant always get to a sink to wash your hands with soap and water, use an antibacterial gel, which can kill viruses.


It couldnt hurt to eat healthy foods, get a good nights sleep, and keep up your physical activity during cold and flu season, too. All of these factors can help your immune system stay strong.


Holiday stress, on the other hand, might weaken your defenses, especially if its on top of a heavy work and home schedule. Its not worth it to go all-out before the holidays if it sets you up for a cold or flu that will make you too sick to get out of bed for Christmas or Hanukkah dinner.


If you fall into one of the high-risk groups that can get a flu shot in this year of shortage, do so. That includes everyone over the age of 65, children and adults with chronic diseases (heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer and other diseases associated with impaired immune systems), health care workers, pregnant women and people who care for babies under six months of age.


Even if you cant get a flu shot because of the shortage, you might want to get a pneumonia shot. These are recommended if youre over age 65, or if youre under 65 but have a chronic condition.


Desmond says he cant emphasize the importance of the pneumonia vaccine enough. He often sees people in these high-risk groups who come to the ER with severe pneumonia that took hold of their lungs, after a cold or flu initially laid them low. For these people, pneumonia can be a serious, and even fatal, complication of plain old flu. But the vaccine, which only has to be given every 10 years, can prevent it.


If you do get the holiday gift of a cold or the flu, what should you do?


First of all, Desmond advises staying away from holiday parties and other gatherings if youre feeling even slightly ill you could pass the virus to someone who could be more vulnerable than you and they could get a severe infection or end up with pneumonia. Its better to miss out on a little fun than to endanger others.


Second, while youre staying home, treat yourself well. The main goal is to ease your symptoms and give yourself what doctors call supportive care keeping yourself comfortable. Think about controlling your fever, drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and avoiding contact with others, says Desmond.


Over-the-counter fever medications and cold remedies from the drugstore might help, but be sure to read the label very carefully to make sure you dont take too much some can be dangerous if taken too often or in combination with things like alcohol.


If you think you have the flu, because of the sudden start of symptoms like high fever and headaches, its reasonable to call your doctor for advice. He or she may prescribe anti-viral medications that might help with flu symptoms and shorten your suffering.


But dont ask for antibiotics, Desmond emphasizes. In all cases, antibiotics are absolutely not going to be effective for treating influenza, he says, because flu and colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics only work against bacteria.


What about going to the emergency room? Only if youre having chest pain, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing, Desmond advises.


If your symptoms are just the run-of-the-mill kind, no matter how awful you might feel, the ER staff wont be able to do much for you. Youll probably have to wait a while to be seen, because sicker people will be examined first. And youll just spread your virus to other, sicker people in the ER. If youre not sure what to do, try to contact your doctor.


Desmond and his fellow emergency medicine professionals know that even if everyone follows all this advice, the U-M emergency room will still be plenty busy this winter. But if he could wish for just one Christmas gift, it would be for people to follow these three rules: to wash their hands, stay home when theyre sick, and cover their coughs.


Facts about the common cold and flu:

The common cold, and influenza (commonly called the flu) are two different illnesses.

Both colds and flu are caused by viruses, and both tend to spread widely in late fall and early winter just in time to wreck the holidays for many people. Because theyre caused by viruses, antibiotics wont work against them.

Cold symptoms usually include coughs and sneezes, increased mucus in the nose that causes it to run or become congested, and fever. Flu symptoms come on very suddenly, and include sore throats, muscle aches throughout the body, coughing, headache and fever.

Theres no vaccine against the common cold, but there is a flu vaccine. And despite the national shortage, the people most at risk for serious cases of the flu should be able to get a flu shot in time to prevent themselves from getting sick.

Many older and chronically ill people who get the flu go on to develop pneumonia, which can be serious and even fatal. Thats why people over 65, and younger people with chronic conditions, should get a pneumonia vaccine at least once in their lifetime.

If you get a cold or flu, there are three main ways to keep from spreading your virus to others: Clean your hands often, cover your mouth and nose with a sleeve or tissue when you cough or sneeze, and stay home when youre feeling ill. Dispose of tissues immediately.

To protect yourself from colds and the flu, make sure to clean your hands often, especially before eating. Avoid touching your eyes or nose with unclean hands.

For most people with colds and the flu, the emergency room is not the place to get treated. But if you have chest pain, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, get to an ER.


Source: University of Michigan Health System