By Dr. Peter Kadile

Cold and flu season is just around the corner and soon unlucky individuals will be complaining about runny noses, sneezing, cough, congestion and body aches. As I’ve always stressed, it’s important to drink plenty of water, obtain adequate sleep, supplement with vitamin D and most importantly wash your hands to prevent you from getting sick. Let’s again review some important facts.

What is the difference between a cold and flu?

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but are caused by different viruses. They can have similar symptoms but generally flu symptoms are more severe. Cold symptoms usually include head congestion, runny nose, sneezing and a cough. Flu symptoms generally include dry cough, body aches, fevers, extreme fatigue and sometimes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Colds usually do not progress into serious health conditions, but the flu may develop into pneumonia or other conditions that may require hospitalization.

Colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria, thus they will not respond to antibiotics, so don’t go running to the urgent care for a Zpack. In severe cases of the flu, a secondary bacterial pneumonia may develop that would require the use of antibiotics.

Can the flu shot give me the flu?

No, the flu shot cannot give you the flu. The most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling at the injection site. A low grade fever, headaches and body aches may also occur, but these symptoms are not to be confused with actual influenza infection.

If someone actually develops the flu shortly after receiving the flu shot, that person may have been infected by the influenza virus just prior to receiving the shot. The person is getting ill from exposure to the flu before protection from the flu vaccine can take effect.

Can you still get the flu even if you received the flu vaccine?

The flu shot is not 100% effective in preventing the flu. Its effectiveness varies every year, but generally it is only about 60% effective. During last year’s flu season, the nasal flu vaccine was found to be only 3% effective, so it’s not even recommended for this season. Every year a panel of experts decide on which flu strains may become predominant and formulate the vaccine. The experts make a scientific prediction on which flu strains will need to be vaccinated against. They of course don’t always get it right and sometimes the flu virus can mutate and change, rendering the vaccine ineffective.

Since antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, are there any antivirals that combat the flu virus?

Antiviral medications such as, Tamiflu, Relenza and Rapivab, are indicated for treatment of the flu. These medications need to be taken within the first 48 hours of developing the flu to be effective. If they are effective, they have only been shown to decrease the duration of the flu by 1-2 days. They typically cost @ $100 for treatment and are generally not covered by insurance. They are not without possible side effects; severe skin rashes, blistering, changes in behavior and more commonly nausea and vomiting.

Antivirals are indicated for people who are sick enough to be hospitalized with the flu, those with severe health problems such as asthma, pulmonary disease or heart disease, adults age 65 or older, morbidly obese and residents of nursing homes.

The flu vaccine is meant to prevent you from getting the flu, while antiviral medications mentioned above, treat you if you already have the flu.