Medical providers share advice on how to prevent and manage illness during the cold and flu season

DOUG JORDAN FOR THE CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION - A nurse administers a flu vaccine to a patient. Healthcare providers recommend getting an annual flu vaccine to prevent the chances of contracting an influenza virus.The sound of a sneeze or cough may seem inconsequential, but at the height of cold and flu season, it could signal something more.

Healthcare providers say it's difficult to distinguish between common cold and influenza. Symptoms are often similar, but the onset of flu is marked by abrupt fever, chills and often body aches, sore throat and a cough.

Similar, but less severe symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, fever or cough may indicate an upper respiratory infection, often referred to as a common cold.

In any case, the best thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness to others is stay home, says Nicki Canwell, a registered nurse with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County.

"Stay home as long as you have symptoms, even if you don't have a fever anymore," Canwell says.

If you're sick, chances are you're most contagious during the first few days of the illness, but some people remain symptomatic and contagious for much longer, depending on their immune system.

If you or someone in your household is sick, keeping at least six feet of distance and washing your hands can go a long way, says Dr. John Townes.

Townes is the medical director of infection prevention and control for Oregon Health and Science University.

"Wash your hands," Townes urges, noting some influenza strains won't survive long on surfaces, but some germs associated with common colds can survive on surfaces for hours. Washing your hands frequently before you eat or touch your face prevents the movement

of a virus from surfaces into your eyes and nose, Townes says.

While the 2017/18 flu season has reached widespread populations, data show more people are choosing to get vaccinated ahead of the outbreaks.

Columbia County saw a 9.5 percent increase in residents getting flu vaccinations in 2017, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

How do you know when to see a doctor?

Townes says people who are at risk of getting severe influenza, like those over the age of 65, young children, pregnant women, and those with certain medical conditions, should visit a doctor's office or seek emergency care for antiviral medication.

"Often people will wait for a few days before they seek medical attention, so after the first few days, the point is moot because they'll start to feel better," Townes says.

Home remedies — do they work?

Drinking hot tea with lemon and honey, or gargling with warm salt water, may provide temporary relief from a sore throat and pose no harm, Townes notes, but be wary of your grandmother's advice of taking a shot of whisky or going to bed with a combination of wet and dry socks.

"Most of the things that provide symptomatic relief are probably OK," Townes says. "I wouldn't interfere with [anyone] taking them, because we don't know everything, but personally, I wouldn't spend a lot of money on things that haven't been shown to shorten the duration."

For up-to-date tips and information about the cold and flu season, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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