Cold and Flu

Preventing and treating colds: The evidence and the anecdotes

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

No one wants to deal with the misery of a cold, and nothing is guaranteed to prevent you from catching one, but some basic precautions can help reduce the risk. If you already have a cold, certain treatments are definitely more effective than others.

Antibiotics don’t speed recovery from asthma attacks

Nandini Mani, MD
Nandini Mani, MD, Contributing Editor

Winter is often a tough season for asthma sufferers, who generally more likely to become sick than those without asthma. It’s important for asthma patients to receive proper care when ill, and a recent study sheds new light on a common treatment that might not be the best course of action for most asthmatics.

Bronchiolitis: What parents of infants need to know

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

While all babies get colds, bronchiolitis, a respiratory infection that works its way into the lungs. Treatment is usually “supportive,” which means steps to relieve the symptoms, and most babies start to get better after a week or so. But bronchiolitis can make some babies very sick, so parents need to be alert for signs of worsening illness.

When a cough just won’t go away

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

There are a number of conditions that can cause a cough to linger for weeks or months. Doctors treating patients with a chronic cough should consider both the more likely and less common possibilities. When a cough persists after those possibilities have been ruled out or treated, new research suggests that irritated nerve ending in the “cough centers” of the airways could be behind a chronic cough.

Just what is pneumonia, anyway?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

The term “pneumonia” encompasses a number of illnesses and infections. Some are more serious than others, and some are more easily treated than others. Since pneumonia has dominated the news cycle for the past few weeks, we’ve put together some definitions to demystify this catchall term for a range of lung conditions.

Flu news: Now most people with egg allergies can get a flu shot

Wynne Armand, MD
Wynne Armand, MD, Contributing Editor

If you have been avoiding the flu shot because you’re allergic to eggs, studies suggest that you can safely get vaccinated. Allergic reactions to the flu shot are quite rare. If you’ve never had a reaction to a flu shot, protect yourself by getting one this year. Ideally do it in a doctor’s office or hospital so that you can get prompt treatment in the unlikely event you have an immediate, severe reaction.

When do you really need antibiotics for that sinus infection?

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

Many people with sinus infections expect to be given antibiotics for treatment, but in most cases the infection will improve on its own. If a person’s symptoms meet certain criteria — for example, when colorful nasal discharge and facial pressure and pain last for more than 10 days — then antibiotics are recommended.

A bummer for kids: Nasal flu vaccine not effective

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

For years, many kids could skip the traditional flu “shot” — along with the tears — and still be protected by the nasal spray vaccine also known as the LAIV (live attenuated influenza vaccine). But not this year. Studies now show that the nasal vaccine is quite ineffective, and pediatricians are starting to change their flu recommendations from a nose squirt to a shot.

Don’t judge your mucus by its color

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Many people still think the color or consistency of nasal discharge determines whether you have a sinus infection. The truth is that anything that irritates the nose’s delicate lining — whether a virus, bacterium, or allergen — can result in any color or consistency of discharge. In fact, viruses are the most common cause of sinus infections, meaning you shouldn’t run to your doctor based on your mucus color alone.

Cold and flu warning: The dangers of too much acetaminophen

Susan Farrell, MD
Susan Farrell, MD, Contributing Editor

Many common cold and flu medications and prescription-strength pain relievers contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) as one of their active ingredients. If you take several of these drugs at once during a bout of cold or flu, you might accidentally take more than the safe dose of acetaminophen, potentially causing liver damage. It’s always best to read the labels — and to keep in mind that most winter viruses get better on their own with rest, fluids, and time.