Here's everything you and your family need to know before flu season starts.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated September 04, 2019
Getty Images

The season of summer technically isn’t over yet, but with Labor Day in the rear view mirror and a new school year starting up, it’s hard not to kick into gear for fall. Yes, autumn brings hot apple cider, bright foliage, soccer tournaments, and cozy turtlenecks—but it also signals the start of cold and flu season. While that’s no reason to panic and never leave the house, families should definitely know how to arm themselves against fall and winter sicknesses like the common cold and influenza (or the flu).

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, a cofounder and chief medical director at Carbon Health, and the previous founder of Direct Urgent Care, is breaking down everything you need to know to stay ahead of the upcoming cold and flu season this year.

When exactly is flu season?

“We think of cold and flu season in terms of peak number of patients affected,” says Dr. Djavaherian. “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.”

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. This means you could pick up these viruses indirectly by touching a surface that an infected person previously touched after coughing into their hands. More directly, the viruses can be transmitted through 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.

“The hallmark of the flu is 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 a fever, chills, and symptoms similar to a cold, including coughing, sneezing and congestion.

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.”

How to stay healthy during cold/flu season

Dr. Djavaherian’s best recommendation is to get a flu shot. “Year after year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown how vital the flu shot has been in preventing widespread infections and unnecessary deaths from the flu,” he says. Beyond getting vaccinated, take extra care not to touch your mouth, especially after touching your hands to anything, thoroughly wash your hands often, and avoid face-to-face contact with people you know have the flu.

For any parents worried about keeping their kids healthy when they aren’t under their watchful eye—aka at school, extracurriculars, or play dates—know how to arm them with flu-prevention tactics. “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.”

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).

What to do if you or a family member gets sick

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. “If you live with other people, especially young children or older adults, make sure they’re vaccinated,” Dr. Djavaherian says. “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.”