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Discerning the Truth About Colds and Flu

'Tis the season, again — cold and flu season, that is! And, despite the fact that colds and flu are so common, they still generate many misconceptions.

With that in mind, Dr. Seth Feltheimer, associate attending physician at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, differentiates between the common cold and the flu, and separates the myths from reality.

Separating the Differences

A cold usually is an upper respiratory tract infection caused by a virus. Symptoms usually range from sore throat and head congestion to sinus pain and low-grade fever. A cold generally lasts two to three days.

The flu, which is caused by another type of virus, generally is accompanied by higher fever, sore throat, cough — with the production of phlegm — and body aches, and usually lasts five to seven days. The flu can lead to more serious complications and even hospitalization for high-risk individuals such as asthmatics and the elderly, according to Feltheimer.

True or False?

"You can catch a cold by staying outside in the cold too long?"

False. Colds are spread by touching something an infected person has touched, or by breathing in moisture an infected person has coughed out. People contract colds more often in the winter because they spend more time indoors and spend more time with each other.

"Antibiotics can cure a cold or the flu."

False. A cold or the flu is a virus, which cannot be treated with antibiotics. However, medications can be taken to help alleviate some of the symptoms. There is a flu vaccine, but not one for colds.

"If you have the flu, you shouldn't go to work."

True. You should avoid exposing your colleagues to the infection. The best thing to do is rest and recover.

"The best way to prevent a cold is to wash your hands."

True. And avoiding contact with people with colds.

"Flu shots can give you the flu."

False. While sometimes the shots can produce very mild flu-like symptoms for a short period, it is not very often.

"If you have a flu shot one year, you don't need it the next."False. The shots do not last for more than a year, and the vaccine is reformulated annually to target the specific kind of virus, which may change from year to year.

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