At first, the symptoms of the common cold and the flu virus may seem similar. In fact, both are caused by respiratory viruses, but if your condition rapidly worsens and you develop a fever that hits 102 or higher, it’s more likely to be flu. The flu is also more likely than colds to be accompanied by headache, muscle pain, chills and severe fatigue.

The risk is real

Flu is a serious disease that can lead to hospitalization and sometimes even death. Even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, on average, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year with flu-related illnesses, and the number of annual flu-related deaths ranges from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000. More than 100 children died as a result of the flu and flu-related illnesses during the 2013-14 flu season.

The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year, whether by flu shot or nasal spray. “Getting vaccinated is the best thing you can do to prevent the flu. Effectiveness does vary, but it is the best available tool we have to lessen the risk,” says Susan J. Rehm, MD, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). CDC recommends everyone age 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year, and CDC now recommends use of the nasal spray vaccine for healthy children 2 to 8 years of age, when it is immediately available, but stresses that parents should not delay vaccination of their children. CDC also recommends that pregnant women receive the flu shot  and to avoid nasal spray during any trimester to protect both themselves and their newborns. Those with underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease are at higher risk of complications from the flu.

  1. Wash your hands.
    Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

  2. Be careful what you touch.
    Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your fingers or hands— germs spread this way.

  3. Clean what you touch frequently.
    Disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces including doorknobs, keyboards, and phones that may be contaminated with germs.

  4. Use a tissue.
    Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Cough or sneeze into your elbow or upper sleeve, not your hands.

  5. Stay home if you are sick.
    We all want to keep going and feel invincible, but there is no excuse for showing up at work or school while sick and infecting everyone. “If you are running a fever, or are so ill that you would be not be very productive, do your office or school mates a favor and stay at home,” says Dr. Rehm.

Build your defense

Flu vaccination should begin as soon as vaccine becomes available in your community. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against infection. Flu vaccine is recommended annually for two reasons. First, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine is needed for optimal protection. Second, because flu viruses are constantly changing, the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year to keep up with changing flu viruses.

The viruses in the flu vaccine are killed or weakened, so you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. Different side effects may be associated with getting a flu vaccine, but these side effects are mild and short-term, especially when compared to symptoms of a bad case of flu. 

If you think you do have the flu, call your doctor right away. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral flu medications to treat the infection. These medications can shorten the time you are sick, if taken within the first 48 hours.