Editor's note: The following is cited from the FDA, representing the opinions of the agency only. Those who do not trust drugs, vaccines or over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may consider using high doses of vitamin C and D as these vitamins are associated with immune responses against infections.
Get Set for Winter Illness Season
In much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is prime time for colds, influenza (flu), and other respiratory illnesses.
contagious viruses are active year-round, fall and winter are when
we're all most vulnerable to them. This is due in large part to people
spending more time indoors with others when the weather gets cold.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates medicines and vaccines that help fight winter illnesses.
Colds and Flu
respiratory bugs come and go within a few days, with no lasting
effects. However, some cause serious health problems. Although symptoms
of colds and flu can be similar, the two are different.
are usually distinguished by a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. Other
symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery eyes. No
vaccine against colds exists because they can be caused by many types
of viruses. Often spread through contact with mucus, colds come on
Flu comes on suddenly, is more serious, and
lasts longer than colds. The good news is that yearly vaccination can
help protect you from getting the flu. Flu season in the United States
generally runs from November to April.
include fever, headache, chills, dry cough, body aches, fatigue, and
general misery. Like colds, flu can cause a stuffy or runny nose,
sneezing, and watery eyes. Young children may also experience nausea
and vomiting with flu.
Get vaccinated against flu.
Flu complications cause an average of 36,000 deaths each year,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Flu vaccine, available as a shot or a nasal spray, remains the best way
to prevent and control influenza. The best time to get a flu
vaccination is from October through November, although getting it in
December and January is not too late. A new flu shot is needed every
year because the predominant flu viruses change every year.
Everyone—children, adolescents, adults, and elderly people—should be vaccinated.
Certain people are more at risk for developing complications from flu;
they should be immunized as soon as vaccine is available. These groups
- people 65 and older
- residents of nursing homes or other places that house people with
chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease
- adults and children with heart or lung disorders, including asthma
- adults and children who have required regular medical follow-up or
hospitalization during the preceding year because of chronic metabolic
diseases (including diabetes), kidney dysfunction, a weakened immune
system, or disorders caused by abnormalities of hemoglobin (a protein
in red blood cells that carries oxygen)
- young people ages 6 months to 18 years receiving long-term
aspirin therapy, and who as a result might be at risk for developing
Reye's syndrome after being infected with influenza (See aspirin
information in the section "Taking OTC Products.")
flu vaccination for health care workers is urged because unvaccinated
workers can be a primary cause of outbreaks in health care settings.
to your doctor before getting vaccinated if you have certain allergies,
especially to eggs; have an illness, such as pneumonia; have a high
fever; or are pregnant.
Wash your hands often.
Teach children to do the same. Both colds and flu can be passed through
coughing, sneezing, and contaminated surfaces, including the hands. CDC
recommends regular washing of your hands with warm, soapy water for
about 15 seconds.
Try to limit exposure to infected people.
Keep infants away from crowds for the first few months of life. This is
especially important for premature babies who may have underlying
abnormalities such as lung or heart disease.
Practice healthy habits.
- Eat a balanced diet.
Get enough sleep.
Exercise. It can help the immune system better fight off the germs that cause illness.
Do your best to keep stress in check.
people who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand smoke are more
prone to respiratory illnesses and more severe complications than
colds and flu simply have to be allowed to run their course. You can
try to relieve symptoms without taking medicine. Gargling with salt
water may relieve a sore throat. And a cool-mist humidifier may help
relieve stuffy noses.
Here are other steps to consider:
First, call your doctor. This will ensure that the best course of treatment can be started early.
If you are sick, try not to make others sick too.
Limit your exposure to other people. Also, cover your mouth with a
tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throw used tissues into the trash
Stay hydrated and rested.
Fluids can help loosen mucus and make you feel better, especially if
you have a fever. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated products. These may
Know your medicine options. If you choose to use medicine, there are over-the-counter (OTC) options that can help relieve the symptoms of colds and flu.
If you want to unclog a stuffy nose, then nasal decongestants may help.
Cough suppressants quiet coughs; expectorants loosen mucus so you can
cough it up; antihistamines help stop a runny nose and sneezing; and
pain relievers such as acetaminophen can ease fever, headaches, and
In addition, there are prescription antiviral medications approved by
FDA that are indicated for treating the flu. Talk to your health care
professional to find out what will work best for you.
Taking OTC Products
Be wary of unproven treatments.
It's best to use treatments that have been approved by FDA. Many people
believe that products with certain ingredients—vitamin C or Echinacea,
for example—can treat winter illnesses.
has approved a product for treatment of specific symptoms, you cannot
assume that the product will treat those symptoms. Tell your health
care professionals about any supplements or herbal remedies you use.
Read medicine labels carefully and follow directions. People
with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, should
check with a health care professional or pharmacist before taking a new
cough and cold medicine. Some medicines can worsen underlying health
Choose appropriate OTC medicines.
Choose OTC medicines specifically for your symptoms. If all you have is
a runny nose, only use a medicine that treats a runny nose. This can
keep you from unnecessarily doubling up on ingredients, a practice that
can prove harmful.
Check the medicine's side effects.
Certain medications such as antihistamines can cause drowsiness.
Medications can interact with food, alcohol, dietary supplements, and
The safest strategy is to make sure your
health care professional and pharmacist know about every product you
are taking, including nonprescription drugs and any dietary supplements
such as vitamins, minerals, and herbals.
Check with a doctor before giving medicine to children.
Get medical advice before treating children suffering from cold and flu
symptoms. Do not give children medication that is labeled only for
Don't give aspirin or aspirin-containing medicines to children and teenagers. Children and teenagers suffering from flu-like symptoms, chickenpox, and other viral illnesses shouldn't take aspirin.
syndrome, a rare and potentially fatal disease found mainly in
children, has been associated with using aspirin to treat flu or
chickenpox in kids. Reye's syndrome can affect the blood, liver, and
Some medicine labels may refer to aspirin as
salicylate or salicylic acid. Be sure to educate teenagers, who may
take OTC medicines without their parents' knowledge.
When to See a Doctor
a health care professional if you aren't getting any better or if your
symptoms worsen. Mucus buildup from a viral infection can lead to a
With children, be alert for high
fevers and for abnormal behavior such as unusual drowsiness, refusal to
eat, crying a lot, holding the ears or stomach, and wheezing.
Signs of trouble for all people can include
- a cough that disrupts sleep
- a fever that won't go down
- increased shortness of breath
- face pain caused by a sinus infection
of symptoms, high fever, chest pain, or a difference in the mucus
you're producing, all after feeling better for a short time
and flu complications may include bacterial infections (e.g.,
bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia) that could
Remember: While antibiotics are used against
bacterial infections, they don't help against viral infections such as
the cold or flu.
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Health Information Web page (www.fda.gov/consumer), which features the latest updates on FDA-regulated products. Sign up for free e-mail subscriptions at www.fda.gov/consumer/consumerenews.html.
For More Information
Using OTC Cough and Cold Products in Children
Vaccines Stand Ready for Flu Season
Combating Antibiotic Resistance
Importance of Influenza Vaccination for Health Care Personnel
Date Posted: December 11, 2008