While many of her friends and family members enjoy the cooler temperatures and vibrantly colored leaves that herald the arrival of autumn, Mary O’Brien braces herself. For her, fall and winter mean sniffles, sneezes and frequent trips to the doctor.
"Getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water and getting exercise are also important in helping your immune system stay healthy and strong."
—Rachel Lynch, manager for Prevention and Self Care at Inova Health System in Fairfax
"I usually catch about four colds between October and April," said the North Potomac, Md., mother of two preschool children. "Between myself, my husband and our kids, it seems like someone always has a runny nose, fever or cough."
Local health care professionals say that while cold and flu season peaks in January and February, it can begin as early as October and extend through May. While there is no cure for the cold or flu, there are a few strategies that can increase one’s chances of staying healthy.
Cold or Flu? Understanding the Difference
"Symptoms of the flu range from mild to severe, but usually begin with a fever and body aches, and often include a cough and/or a sore throat, a headache, a runny nose, fatigue and chills, and potential vomiting, nausea and/or diarrhea. In many cases, the flu will resolve on its own in four to 10 days with plenty of rest and liquids. If symptoms are severe, a doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to help lessen the duration and/or symptoms."
— Dr. Jean Glossa, medical director, Fairfax County Community Health Care Network
Clean hands are the first line of defense against germs that cause illness. "I advise my patients to practice good hand washing habits, avoid touching their faces when possible, and cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough," said Dr. Jean Glossa, medical director for the Fairfax County Community Health Care Network in Alexandria, Reston and Falls Church and Molina Healthcare.
Rachel Lynch, manager for Prevention and Self Care at Inova Health System in Fairfax, adds, "Hand sanitizers are a great option if you’re out and about or don’t have access to soap, but you should always make sure you clean your hands before and after eating, when you’ve been around other people who might be sick, or when you’ve come in contact with animals."
Experts also stress the importance of safeguarding one’s immune system: "Getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water and getting exercise are also important in helping your immune system stay healthy and strong," said Lynch.
She went on to advise patients to avoid spreading germs to others: "If you’re not feeling well, stay home. If we keep people who are sick at home, we’re not spreading it to individuals who aren’t sick. A lot of times, people think it’s strong to push through and still go to school or work even if you’re not feeling well."
WHEN IT COMES to staving off the flu, healthcare professionals say to vaccinate.
"The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reminds us that the single best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine each season," said Diane M. White, a registered nurse with a master’s of science in nursing and director of the Nurse Practitioner Marymount University Student Health Center in Arlington.
How does one know whether or not they should get a flu shot? "The CDC recommends that anyone over 6 months of age gets vaccinated, especially those at high risk for complications … like [people with] asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease, pregnant women, children between 6 and 23 months of age, anyone 65 or older and those who live with or care for those [at] high risk," said Glossa.
"People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems."
— Diane M. White, registered nurse with a master’s of science in nursing and director of the Nurse Practitioner Marymount University Student Health Center in Arlington
Glossa adds that because the antibodies take about two weeks to provide the full measure of protection, the CDC recommends that the public get vaccinated as soon as the new vaccine is offered.
Experts say that some people are afraid to get the vaccine because they believe it may cause the flu, but that notion is inaccurate: "Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus so it can’t infect you," said Glossa. "The nasal vaccine, known as FluMist, is the one type of live virus flu vaccine, but this virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick."
Glossa offers one caveat: "People with severe allergies, especially those with an allergy to eggs, or anyone who has had a severe a reaction to flu vaccines in the past, should check with their doctors before getting a flu shot."