Cold and Flu Facts – includes a free patient information PDF!

Download the free patient handout PDF near the end of this article!

Colds and the flu (influenza) are both caused by viruses. There is no medicine to cure cold or flu viruses. Antibiotics do not treat viruses. Often, people do not need to seek medical attention for a cold or flu, but if your symptoms are extreme, last a long time, or you have a risk factor (listed below) you may need to see your health care provider.


Colds usually start mild and symptoms get worse with time. Most adults have the common cold 2-4 times a year and it is not uncommon for children to have the cold up to 10 times a year.

How do we get colds?

Colds enter your body through your nose or mouth. Germs travel when someone around you coughs or sneezes, with hand-to-hand contact with someone who is sick, or by using something a sick person has used such as utensils, lip balm, or a telephone.

Cold Symptoms:

  • Mild fever
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches or soreness
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Headache
  • Sneezing

Flu (Influenza)

The flu enters your body like the cold does. Unlike a cold, the flu usually starts suddenly. If you are healthy you will probably recover from the flu in 3-10 days. However, if you have any of the risk factors listed in the box below, the flu can last longer or even be fatal.

Flu Symptoms:

  • Feeling very weak and tired
  • Fever
  • Cough or sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Body aches

Risk factors that may make someone more in danger of cold or flu viruses:

  • Infant or young child
  • Over the age of fifty
  • Chronic condition such as asthma, diabetes, heart, kidney, or lung disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Weakened immune system from HIV/AIDS or another disease or condition

Flu Shots and Medication

An annual flu vaccine taken as a shot or nasal spray can prevent certain strains of the flu and can reduce the severity of the flu if you do get sick.

Antiviral medications can also be taken to reduce severity of the flu or shorten the amount of time you are sick. Talk to your health care provider for information on flu shots or medications.

Seek Medical Attention If:

  • Your cold or flu lasts more than 10 days
  • There is severe pain or swelling in your face, forehead, or neck
  • You cough up green, yellow, or gray mucus or you cough up blood
  • You have shortness of breath
  • Your temperature is above 102◦ F (39◦ C)
  • You have an earache or drainage from your ear
  • You have hoarseness, sore throat, or cough that will not go away
  • You have wheezing or chest pain.

Hand Washing

One of the best ways to prevent catching the flu or a cold is to wash your hands properly.

Wash Your Hands Before:

  • Eating or preparing food
  • Putting in or taking out contact lenses
  • Giving medicine or bandaging wounds

Wash Your Hands After:

    You can print copies of this PDF handout for your patients, to reinforce what you have told them.
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  • Preparing foods
  • Blowing your nose
  • Coughing or sneezing into your hands
  • Going to the bathroom or changing diapers
  • Touching garbage, dirty goods, or dirty clothing
  • Touching someone who is sick, or touching cuts or wounds
  • Touching animals or animal waste

How To Wash Hands Properly:

  • Wet hands with warm running water and apply soap (liquid, bar or powder).
  • Lather the soap by rubbing your hands together, making sure to rub the back of your hands, under your fingernails, between your fingers and your wrists. Rubbing should last 20 or more seconds.
  • Rinse soap off.
  • Dry hands with a clean towel, paper towel, or air dryer.
  • If possible use your towel to turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door.

Note: antibacterial soap does not kill germs better than regular soap.

Used with permission from the Community Health Association of Mountain/Plains States (CHAMPS)