Cold and Flu

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.

Why your wheezing baby may need TLC, not medication

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

If your baby is sick with fever, cough, and wheezing, it’s natural to think he or she needs medication. But if the culprit is bronchiolitis — a bad cold that has settled into the lungs — the best treatment is usually no treatment at all. That’s because treatments like antibiotics don’t work against bronchiolitis, and can cause unwanted side effects. Of course, you should always check in with your doctor if you think your baby has bronchiolitis.

Do statins interfere with the flu vaccine?

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

The statin drugs are very effective at reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and may also reduce inflammation throughout the body. Both of these properties can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems. At the same time, research — some of it conflicting — suggests that statins may also affect the body’s immune system. In particular, they may dampen the response to vaccines.

Kids and flu shots: Two common myths

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

“Last time I got the flu shot, it actually made me sick!” “My kids are perfectly healthy. They’ll be fine.” You’ve probably heard a version of these two before. These flu shot myths are so persistent that they prevent countless numbers of people from getting vaccinated each year. We’ve debunked these claims here to help you make your flu shot decision based on facts — not myths.

Get the flu vaccine, reduce your risk of death

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

Last year’s flu vaccine gave a lackluster performance — it prevented the flu in less than a quarter of the people who got immunized. Flu vaccines are created to protect against the three or four viruses most likely to cause the flu in a given season. Some years, the predictions are better than others. Scientists are now working on a universal flu vaccine that may make the guesswork unnecessary. And there are improved vaccines available for people with egg allergies, which would otherwise prohibit them from getting standard flu shots. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. It does lower your chances of getting the flu, and it reduces the risk for heart attack, stroke, and death as well.

This year’s flu vaccine “disappointing” against main flu virus

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Some years the flu vaccine works quite well. Other years it doesn’t. It has done a particularly poor job this year against the main flu virus. The CDC reported yesterday that this year’s flu vaccine has been just 18% effective. The estimate for children is even lower. And it looks like the nasal spray vaccine may not have worked at all among children. One reason for this year’s mismatch between virus and vaccine is that experts must decide months in advance which of the hundreds of flu viruses to include in the vaccine. What became the dominant flu virus this year, a new strain of H3N2 influenza A, wasn’t around last year when experts were determining this year’s vaccine.

Two bad reasons for not getting a flu shot

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Each year, only 40% of U.S. adults get vaccinated against the flu, even though the vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces, and other venues. Two common reasons people give for avoiding the flu shot are 1) it will give me the flu and 2) it won’t work. Neither are accurate. The virus in a flu shot or nose spray has been killed or made unable to replicate in the human lung. Because the most common strains of flu virus changes from year to year, experts have to predict a year in advance which ones will predominate. Some years the guesses are good and the vaccines are quite effective. Other years the guesses aren’t so good and the vaccines aren’t as protective as they could be. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. Who should be vaccinated? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated against the flu every year.

For protection against pneumonia, more than one vaccine can help

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Getting a flu shot can help ward off the flu. It also works to prevent pneumonia, a leading cause of hospitalization (about one million a year) and death (about 50,000) in the United States. Pneumonia can be especially dangerous in young children and older people. For these groups, as well as others who face a high risk of pneumonia, two different vaccines can help prevent pneumonia caused by the bacterium known as Streptococcus pneumoniae. One, called PPSV23 or Pneumovax, is derived from 23 different types of pneumococcal bacteria. A newer vaccine, called PCV13, features parts of 13 different pneumococcal bacteria linked to a protein that helps the vaccine work better. PCV13 is recommended for all children younger than 5 years old, all adults 65 years or older, and anyone age 6 or older with risk factors for pneumonia. PPSV23 is recommended for all adults 65 years or older and anyone age 2 years through 64 years are at high risk of pneumonia.

Protecting your children against Enterovirus D68

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Enterovirus D68 is a respiratory infection that has been spreading across the country and making some children quite ill. It is especially problematic for kids with asthma or other respiratory issues. Enterovirus D68 can start out looking like a garden variety cold but lead to serious trouble breathing. What’s a parent to do? The same things he or she would normally do during cold and flu season: hand washing, staying away from people who are sick, regularly cleaning common surfaces like doorknobs, not sharing cups and utensils, and coughing or sneezing into the elbow, not the hands. Those who have children with asthma need to be extra vigilant about their child’s asthma care routine. Most upper respiratory infections are the simple cold. Still, it’s important to stay alert for signs of breathing difficulties.