What to know about colds and flu


Myths about colds and the flu are everywhere. Maybe you’ve heard some of these:

  • Colds are caused by wet hair or drafts.
  • The flu is annoying but basically harmless.
  • Antibiotics will cure a cold or flu.
  • The flu vaccine can give you the flu.

Misconceptions and rumors like these are as hard to contain and as hard to fight as the illness itself. And putting your faith in them will not only not help you to prevent getting sick, they may even make things worse.

By far the better idea is to learn the real facts about these common, preventable illnesses. The most reliable source for some straight talk about colds and flu is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.1,2

Here’s what they said.

What are they?

The common cold and seasonal influenza (“the flu”) are infections of the respiratory system, that is, the nose, throat, and lungs. Both are caused by viruses. But colds and the flu are different diseases, caused by different viruses. We can catch a cold almost any time, but the flu tends to occur in the colder months of the year, so we say it is “seasonal.”

Colds and the flu include many of the same symptoms, like fever, coughing, sneezing and body aches.

But the flu is usually much more intense than a cold. Seasonal flu can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year from seasonal flu-related complications.

How do they spread? Can I avoid them?

Both colds and the flu are spread by contact with other people who have the virus. We can get sick if we breathe in when they cough or sneeze, or if we touch something with the virus and fail to wash our hands.

Avoiding colds and the flu is simple: wash your hands frequently and stay away from people who are sick, if you can.

You have another tool for avoiding the flu: immunization. In fact, the CDC is extremely clear about this; they say that everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated against the flu every year.

What should I do if I get sick?

For anyone who has a viral infection, whether a cold or the flu, there are a few simple steps to follow.

  • Stay away from others as much as possible to keep from making them sick.
  • If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue.
  • Wash your hands often to keep from spreading the virus to others.
  • For flu, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone* except to get medical care or for other things you have to do and no one else can do for you.

Take care of yourself and your family

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
  • Avoid smoking, second-hand smoke, and other pollutants
  • Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen to relieve pain or fever


For children and adults, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, decongestants and saline nasal sprays may help relieve some symptoms. Children should not take aspirin if they have flu symptoms. While OTC medicines may help relieve symptoms, they do not shorten the length of time you are sick.

What else?

Generally speaking, colds are not a serious health threat to normally healthy people. Even the flu, while potentially much more serious, is usually self-limited, if uncomfortable. Some years the flu is stronger than usual, and even healthy people can get very sick. The very old and the very young are at greater risk from complications from the flu. As are pregnant women and people with certain pre-existing conditions such as asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes or heart disease.

If you get sick with flu symptoms and are at high risk of flu complications, or if you are concerned about your illness, call your doctor.



*Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®.

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Influenza: Questions & Answers. July 6, 2011.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Cold and Runny Nose. September 1, 2010.

M50866 4/12 © 2012 United HealthCare Services, Inc.