Have you noticed a lot more folks sneezing, wheezing and watery eyed lately while you’ve been at work, school or in public?
Despite the glorious weather that has colored most of October, there are some realities in Western New York that are simply inescapable: The honeymoon period for the new Bills and Sabres seasons ended this month. Halloween stores popped up in vacant storefronts all across the region. And cold and flu season arrived.
Unfortunately, you can’t control the first two – not even if you’re Thomas Vanek or C.J. Spiller – but there’s quite a bit you can do to control the last.
Step one is to know the enemy, whose symptoms in both cases generally include fever, headache, muscle aches and likely a runny nose and cough. Sometimes, gastrointestinal issues flare up, too.
“Typically, the difference between somebody having the flu and somebody having a cold is the severity of the symptoms and usually the onset,” said Dr. Diana Wilkins, a family doctor at UB Family Medicine in the Town of Tonawanda.
“A flu illness will hit you like a ton of bricks,” Wilkins said. “All of a sudden, you’ll start to feel pretty sick pretty quickly. A cold sort of smolders and gradually builds. You’ll get a tickle in your throat and get congested. It’s not as an intense experience, but it certainly can be annoying and disabling, and include days missed from work and a trip to the doctor.”
Colds and the flu are caused by viruses, so antibiotics have limited impact on treatment. Prevention is key, and here are several steps to take in that regard:
• 1. Get a flu shot: “That’s the best thing you can do to prevent catching the influenza virus,” said Wilkins, who warns that flu is much more dangerous than a cold, particularly for the young, the old and those with weakened immune systems.
Flu shot signs outside pharmacies and grocery stores are even more common these days than the Halloween costume stores. Most cost at least a co-pay, but here’s one that’s free for every Erie County resident, even those with health insurance: Main Place Mall, upper level, will host a clinic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 30. Walk-ins are welcome, but registration is strongly recommended by visiting health.state.ny.us/gotoclinic, clicking on Erie County and printing out a registration ticket.
A $30 flu shot is worth the cost of avoiding an illness that can keep you bedridden for several days or more.
Still, Wilkins warns, “it’s not going to prevent you from having a cold.”
There are other ways to do that, and they can help prevent the flu, as well.
• 2. Avoid sick people: This requires people who are sick to stay home, and that doesn’t always happen.
Those who are sick need to know their school and work attendance policy, Wilkins says, and when coughing or sneezing, all of us should do so into the crook of our elbow or use a tissue. “If it’s truly an influenza virus, people don’t want to leave their house until their fever is gone,” which usually is at least 24 hours, Wilkins said. “For somebody who has a cold, if you’re able to control your symptoms and go to work, it’s reasonable, but for somebody trying to protect themselves, avoid sick people as much as you can.”
• 3. Wash your hands: This always is a good practice. “If soap and water are not available, using something like an antibacterial is good,” Wilkins said. “A hand gel would be adequate. Another thing that’s important is cleaning things that are likely to have germs on them: doorknobs, phones, computer keyboards, shopping carts. Those are areas where germs can live for days and people certainly catch illnesses that way.”
• 4. Don’t be so touchy: Be careful about touching your eyes, mouth and nose. “Our mucous membranes are more vulnerable to the spread of a virus,” Wilkins said. “Especially for kids, keeping your hands out of your mouth and washing your hands before you eat are the basics for protecting yourself.”
• 5. Sleep tight: “An adequate amount of sleep is seven to eight hours a night,” Wilkins said. “Lack of sleep is going to weaken the immune system and make you more vulnerable to viruses.”
• 6. Eat and exercise right: Wilkins doesn’t recommend specific foods to ward off and fight the cold or flu – “but I think a well-balanced, healthy diet – an adequate serving of fruits and vegetables – is what I would recommend.”
• 7. Urgency and patience: It’s important to know cold and flu symptoms, so you can jump on both. “This helps reduce the risk of having a cold or the flu becoming more severe,” Wilkins said, particularly if you’re vulnerable to a more serious infection. A prescription antiviral, like Tamiflu, is most effective to fight the flu when taken within 48 hours of the start of symptoms, she says. “If somebody has health problems – say diabetes or asthma, or conditions that weaken your immune system – you do want to get in and see your doctor pretty quickly,” Wilkins said. “You can be evaluated and potentially start on an antiviral medication to prevent any complications, but the rest of the treatment would be the same as treating a cold: Pushing fluids and rest.”
When Wilkins has a cold, which isn’t often, she sometimes takes Benadryl to dry her out and help her sleep. “But I find most medications are temporary measures and tend not to help (much),” she said, “so I typically stick with fluids and rest. The body’s fighting to ward off infection, and you need to be able to have the strength to do that.”