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How to Handle Cold and Flu Season

Doctor-Recommended Remedies

It can be the most unwonderful time of the year if sniffles and sneezes are making the rounds in your house. In fact, adults contract an average of two to four colds per year, and women who have kids usually suffer from even more.

School-age children get up to 12 colds every year and are two to three times more likely than adults to come down with the flu. The good news is that you can steer clear of the season's under-the-weather blues by following a few simple yet effective strategies. Here, doctors share the symptom-soothing tricks that they use on their own families.

Quiet a Cough

Have a tea party. Warm drinks—like a cup of chamomile tea—help thin mucus, making you less likely to cough. "Tea also contains the chemical theophylline, which has a decongestant effect, opening up airways in the lungs and soothing irritation," says Jennifer Derebery, M.D., an ear, nose and throat specialist in Los Angeles who has teenage twins. Plus, you can add two teatime staples to your mug for extra cough-stopping power: honey, which fights bacteria, and lemon, an antioxidant powerhouse. (Be sure to avoid giving honey to children under the age of 3.)

Linger in the shower. The moisture from the steam helps reduce throat inflammation that may cause a barky, croupy cough or hoarseness. "It also loosens thick, dry mucus, easing congestion," says Laura Jana, M.D., a pediatrician in Omaha, Nebraska, and mother of three.

Raid the candy jar. A cough drop is the obvious Rx for a cough that just won't quit. Don't have one handy? Sucking on a piece of hard candy or a sugarless mint will help, too. "Anything in the mouth helps calm the cough reflex, which is caused by phlegm tickling the back of the throat," says Dr. Derebery.

Ask your doctor about an inhaler. If your cough lasts more than a week, your airways may have become hyperreactive, which is what happens to asthma sufferers. "Ask your doctor if a beta-agonist inhaler will help your symptoms," says Christine Laine, M.D., a clinical associate professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, who has two kids. Your doctor may prescribe you with an inhaler to use four times daily for a few days in a row. This may help calm the airways and stop the cough.

Soothe a Sore Throat

Put it on ice. Numb aching airways with cold beverages, frozen yogurt, or ice pops. "You may want to avoid juice, though, because it tends to be acidic and may sting a very sore throat," says Debra Goldenring, M.D., a pediatrician in Livingston, New Jersey, with two kids.

Pass the salt. Twice daily, mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water and gargle with it. "This helps draw fluid out of inflamed throat tissue," says Dr. Derebery. It should help the swelling go down, making your throat feel better. "The salt water may even wash away viruses and bacteria," she says.

Curb Congestion

Sip some soup. Mom knew best when she fixed you a bowl of steaming chicken noodle on a sick day. "Like all hot liquids, soup thins mucus in your airways, reducing stuffiness," says Sujana Chandrasekhar, M.D., an ear, nose and throat doctor in New York City and mother of four. But the sick-day standby may also have other infection-fighting abilities: A study from the University of Nebraska Medical Centers found that chicken vegetable soup reduces the activity of inflammatory white blood cells, called neutrophils, that can cause cold symptoms.

Spice up your diet. Forget about sticking to a bland diet when you're feeling under the weather. In fact, this is just the time to spice things up a bit. "Cayenne pepper, garlic and curry open clogged passageways and make breathing easier," says Dr. Chandrasekhar. So rediscover those spices hiding in the back of your kitchen cupboard, and add some zest to that pot of soup.

Spray away. "When you have a cold, your body releases inflammatory chemicals that can cause congestion and dripping," explains Dr. Derebery. If you're really stuffed up, use an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray twice daily. Just make sure you don't use it for longer than five days or you could become dependent. Younger children may benefit from a simple saline nasal spray followed up by the use of a nasal aspirator.

Fight the Flu

Medicine matters. Achiness and fever are signs that your body is wrestling with a flu virus. "Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation," suggests Dr. Goldenring. You also need to get plenty of zzz's to strengthen your immune system, so opt for ibuprofen before bed—it typically lasts longer than acetaminophen. (Always check with your pediatrician before administering fever reducers and pain relievers to children under the age of 6.)

Get vaccinated. The best way to protect yourself and your family from the flu is with the vaccine. It takes about two weeks for your body to develop protective antibodies, so the sooner you get vaccinated the better (the best time is October to November, before cold and flu season is in full swing). "You have two options," says Dr. Derebery. "The traditional shot contains dead flu virus, while the nasal spray (FluMist, available to children over the age of 2) is made with a weakened form of the live virus." Most kids and any adults who are squeamish about shots will prefer the spray, but keep in mind that it's normal to feel congested, tired, or headachy for a day or so after receiving the live virus. To find a clinic near you, go to

Considering the H1N1 shot? Be sure that you speak with your doctor or pediatrician about getting an H1N1 vaccination. The seasonal flu shot currently does not protect you from H1N1. The CDC is encouraging families to get both a seasonal flu shot and an H1N1 flu vaccination—and suggests getting the shots any time they are available throughout the winter and/or spring. For up-to-date information on the H1N1 virus as well as vaccination availability, visit

Ease Earaches

Opt for ibuprofen. "When you have a cold, ear pain is often due to a swollen eustachian tube (the passage that connects the back of the nose to the ear)," says Dr. Chandrasekhar. Nasal congestion is what makes the tube swell. Taking ibuprofen every six to eight hours will help reduce the pressure in the tube and relieve the pain. (Always check with your pediatrician before giving ibuprofen to children under the age of 6.)

Grab some chewing gum. Chew sugarless gum or blow up balloons several times a day to help open the eustachian tube. "Try gum that contains the ingredient xylitol—it has an antibacterial effect, so it may help prevent a secondary infection," says Dr. Derebery.

When to See a Doctor

While there's no cure for colds or the flu, both can turn into secondary infections that need treatment. See your physician if you or your kids experience any of the following cold and flu complications:

Cold Red Flags

  • Your symptoms are worsening rather than improving after one week or have gotten no better after 10 days—you may be getting sinusitis.
  • You have one dominant symptom like a sinus headache, ear pain, or a severe sore throat, which means you might have a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.
  • You develop a fever during the course of your cold, which might mean you have an infection.

Flu Red Flags

  • Your cough is getting worse and becoming productive (and your phlegm is green, gray, or yellow)—signs of bronchitis.
  • You have shortness of breath, pain when you cough or take a deep breath, and a fever over 102 degrees, which could indicate pneumonia.
  • If you have a cold or flu and the symptoms wane but then return with much more strength and are accompanied by a fever, be sure to check in with your doctor. A recurrent respiratory flu accompanied by fever may be a sign of an H1N1 infection.

Natural Cures

Can a vitamin or herb stop a cold in its tracks? A growing body of research is shedding light on whether three popular remedies (vitamin C, zinc and echinacea) really work. Here's the real deal:

  • Vitamin C: Research shows that while it won't prevent a cold, it may help reduce symptoms and shorten the duration by a half day or more. Neil Schachter, M.D., author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds & Flu (HarperCollins) recommends taking 250 to 500mg of this vitamin when the first symptom hits and then daily for as long as you're ill. "It seems to help reduce mucus," he explains.
  • Zinc: This essential mineral may prevent the virus from replicating, so your cold won't hit as hard or last as long. While zinc comes in a variety of forms, Dr. Schachter recommends taking lozenges—but make sure you don't have more than two per day. Pop one at the first sign of sickness and continue taking them for two to three days.
  • Echinacea: Recently a New England Journal of Medicine study showed that this herb didn't do much to fight a cold, but more research is necessary. For now, Dr. Schachter doesn't recommend echinacea. "There's not much evidence that it's helpful," he says.

Name That Bug

Although colds and the flu share many pesky symptoms, including headache, sore throat and cough, there are some ways to tell them apart, says Dr. Schachter. Use the chart below to help you distinguish between the two winter bugs:

It's a Cold If...

  • Your fever, if you have one, is low-grade (100 or 101 degrees).
  • You sneeze and have a sore throat, then develop congestion and teary eyes.
  • You feel significantly better after three or four days.

It's the Flu If...

  • You develop a high fever—over 102 degrees.
  • Symptoms (like body aches, chills and exhaustion) strike suddenly.
  • Symptoms last four to five days, and you're too ill to go to work or children are unable to go to school.

Cold and Flu Facts

Sick Day Stat

Colds are responsible for 22 million lost school days every year.

—National Institutes of Health

Cold Culprit

More than 200 different viruses cause common cold symptoms.

—National Institutes of Health

Flu Tracker

If you're curious about how the flu is affecting your community, go to the CDC's Flu Activity & Surveillance site. The tracker issues a searchable data base of weekly flu reports for the United States.

Updated November 2009