Cold and Flu

Up to 20% of Americans get the flu every year, and Americans suffer one billion colds. The Harvard Medical School Guide: Cold and Flu shares practical and effective ways to prevent colds and flu this year. You’ll discover steps that can greatly lower your risk and advances that can dramatically ease aches and misery. You’ll also learn how to treat these usually minor miseries and when to see your doctor. The guide also provides specific information for high-risk groups for whom the flu can be very serious.

Cold and Flu Cover

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Ah-choo! You’re bound to hear that sound—along with sniffling, coughing, and nose-blowing—every winter when cold-and-flu season sprinkles its misery on just about everyone. Every year, Americans suffer one billion colds, and up to 20% of them get the flu. Children get colds and the flu more often than adults. Some kids get as many as 12 colds a year, while adults average two to four.

With such high chances of contracting a cold or the flu, this Harvard Medical School Guide will surely be useful. You will learn how to avoid getting colds and the flu, and, if you do get sick, what you can do to feel better. You’ll also learn how to treat these usually minor miseries and when to see your doctor. The guide also provides specific information for high-risk groups for whom the flu can be very serious.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Jeffrey A. Linder, M.D., M.P.H., Associate Physician, Division of General Medicine and Primary Care, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Howard E. LeWine, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. 33 pages. (2017)

About Harvard Medical School Guides

Harvard Medical School Guides delivers compact, practical information on important health concerns. These publications are smaller in scope than our Special Health Reports, but they are written in the same clear, easy-to-understand language, and they provide the authoritative health advice you expect from Harvard Health Publishing.

  • Surviving cold and flu
    • What causes colds and the flu?
    • What are the symptoms?
    • Complications of the flu
  • How you can prevent colds and the flu
    • Hand washing
    • General health tips
    • Flu vaccinations
    • Antiviral medications for preventing the flu
  • How should you treat colds or the flu?
    • Antiviral medications to treat the flu
    • Medications for colds
    • Other ways to treat colds and the flu
    • Colds and the flu in special populations
    • Colds and the flu in older adults
  • Resources

How do cold and flu viruses spread?

The main way that illnesses like colds and the flu spread from person to person is through the droplets that sick people propel when they cough and sneeze. These droplets may get deposited on the mouth or nose of a person nearby, spreading the virus to him or her. Germs can also be spread when a person touches a surface (like a desk, doorknob, or hand) that has accumulated droplets from a sick person and then touches his or her own eyes, mouth, or nose. Some viruses and bacteria can live on surfaces for two hours or longer. Physical contact (such as kissing) with someone who has a virus will also likely cause it to spread from one person to another.

As you have probably noticed, the flu is much more seasonal than colds. In the United States, flu season is generally from November through April. During these months, the flu can sweep rapidly through communities. Colds may increase in the winter, but they can hit a person at any time of the year.


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