Doctors break down ways to prevent catching a cold or the flu during peak infection months.

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While Autumn brings with it hot apple cider, holiday excitement, and cozy sweaters, it also signals the beginning of cold and flu season. With the coronavirus once again adding a simultaneous health concern this year, it's extra important to do what you can to safeguard against the common cold and influenza (or flu) viruses. "We know that co-infection with flu and COVID-19 is possible, and that such a co-infection will be a nasty combination," says Carmen Teague, MD, the specialty medical director of internal medicine at Atrium Health. Yes, getting sick is the worst, but what's more, the fewer flu patients this year, the less strain on healthcare systems working hard to treat and fight COVID-19. So staying healthy is a double win. Here's what you and your family should know to stay one step ahead of seasonal cold and flu viruses, which typically peak during cold-weather months.

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When (and what) exactly is flu season?

Flu viruses actually exist all year round, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but cases tend to ramp up when the weather turns colder and then peak in midwinter. "We think of cold and flu season in terms of the peak number of patients affected," says Caesar Djavaherian, MD, a cofounder and chief medical director at Carbon Health. "Since the flu never really goes away, identifying the peak month of activity is more useful. In the past 35 years, peak flu season has most commonly occurred between October and May, and has most frequently peaked in February."

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How does a cold or the flu spread?

In order to catch a cold or the flu, these viruses need to contact mucus membranes. "Essentially, the virus spreads by being propelled from an infected person, usually through saliva or nasal mucus when they cough or sneeze, and gets lodged into someone else's body," Dr. Djavaherian explains. Although it's much less likely, it's still possible to pick up these viruses indirectly by touching a surface that an infected person previously touched after coughing into their hands. More directly, however, these viruses can be transmitted through close-contact conversation, a kiss, or other contact with someone's infected saliva or mucus.

What are the major differences between cold and flu symptoms?

According to Dr. Djavaherian, it's important to remember that "just as the flu virus changes year to year, the most prominent flu symptoms people have also change year to year." That said, here are some common symptoms to be wary of, both cold and flu. Both are respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses.

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"The hallmarks of the flu are severe body or muscle aches, shortness of breath, cough, fatigue, and an overall, overwhelming sense of feeling terrible," says Dr. Djavaherian. You may also experience headaches, fever, and chills, in addition to symptoms similar to a cold: coughing/chest discomfort, sneezing, and nasal congestion. According to the CDC, flu symptoms often hit more abruptly and intensely, as opposed to cold symptoms, which can arrive more gradually. 

While still unpleasant, cold symptoms tend to be somewhat less severe than those of the flu. "Cold symptoms often include a sore throat, runny nose, cough, sinus congestion, watery eyes, fever, mild body aches, and sometimes a skin rash." Frequent sneezing can also indicate you've caught a cold.

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The best ways to prevent catching a cold or flu

Dr. Djavaherian's best recommendation is to get a flu shot. Although earlier is better (October is the ideal time to get a flu vaccine), it's certainly not too late to get vaccinated if it's past October. In fact, later is far better than never. Vaccines are preventive, not remedial, so you'll ideally want a flu shot before there's any sort of outbreak in your community. (It takes two weeks or so for the vaccine's flu-fighting antibodies to develop in your body, the CDC says.)

"Year after year, the CDC has shown how vital the flu shot has been in preventing widespread infections and unnecessary deaths from the flu," he says. "If you live with other people, especially young children or older adults, make sure they're vaccinated. This year, the CDC maintains its recommendation that anyone 6 months and older is wise to get a flu vaccine for the 2020–2021 flu season. In fact, it's even more highly encouraged now during the coronavirus pandemic. "The flu shot is more important this year than ever before as flu season collides with the COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. Teague says. "And it's not too late to get [the vaccine]—we recommend the flu shot all the way through flu season, which can last October through March."

Beyond getting vaccinated as the primary method of flu prevention, take extra care not to touch your mouth, especially after touching your hands to anything; cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing; thoroughly wash your hands often; and avoid face-to-face contact with people you know have the flu. 

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For any parents worried about keeping their kids healthy when they aren't under their watchful eye—a.k.a. at school, extracurriculars, or playdates—know how to arm them with flu-prevention tactics. Teach your child the importance of sneezing and coughing into their elbow (rather than hands) and of not sharing drinks, lip balm, flatware, or other things that come in contact with the mouth or nose. Ideally, these healthy habits and precautions should become second nature in order to keep them and their peers safe all day (and all year).

"Consider hooking hand sanitizer onto your kids' backpacks and placing a larger one in the classroom," Dr. Djavaherian suggests. "You could also ask their teacher for hand-washing breaks before and after lunch time."

The good(ish) news is that continued concerns over the pandemic, particularly given the prevalence of Delta variant cases, have moved schools with in-person classes to enforce safety measures—such as mask-wearing, hand sanitizer, and social distancing—that help prevent the spread of both the COVID-19 and influenza viruses.

In other words—and beyond the classroom—the precautions we've been taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 will likely have a dampening effect on flu cases—which is a small silver lining. "Particularly if the Delta variant continues to be rampant this flu season, there's a good chance that the flu will be dampened (as it was last season) as folks continue to wear masks due to the ongoing pandemic, and therefore reduce the chances of propagating the flu," says Vivek Cherian, MD, an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System. 

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What to do if you or a family member gets sick with the cold or flu

Think you have the flu? Get a diagnosis ASAP, because doing so within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms will allow you to take anti-flu medicine. Otherwise, your best option for treating the flu will be limited to alleviating symptoms while your immune system fights it off.

In the meantime, stay home from school or work to rest and so as not to spread the virus to other people. "Wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow—not your hands—and consider wearing a mask to reduce the chance of spreading the virus," Dr. Djavaherian says. If you're already working remotely due to the pandemic, don't be afraid to take an actual sick day if you're truly not feeling well. Working, even from the couch, can hinder you from getting the mental and physical rest your body requires when fighting a seasonal virus. 

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