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House Call: Preparing for cold and flu season

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 12, 2018

In this Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP)
In this Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. (David Goldman / AP)
By Dr. Bob Riggs For The Spokesman-Review

The school year has started and even though we are still having some pleasantly warm days, cold and flu season is just around the corner. If colds and flu made the rounds at your work or in your home last year, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to prepare for the season and avoid getting sick or to at least get sick less often.

My first piece of advice is to get the influenza vaccine by the end of October if you can. It takes about two weeks for the antibodies against the flu to develop, so it is best to get immunized before the flu starts making the rounds at your office, home or school. If you are exposed to the flu after you get your flu shot, but before two weeks have passed, it is more likely you will get sick. This is probably why people often think the flu shot gave them the flu.

There are several different types of flu vaccines. Certain vaccines may be better suited to various age groups and/or types of populations (e.g., older adults may respond better to the high-dose vaccine); however, any age-appropriate form of flu vaccine is acceptable in the event that a certain product is unavailable. Talk to your health-care provider about which shot is best for you and for each of your family members. The pneumococcal vaccine may be appropriate for some family members as well, so ask about that too.

Although colds and flu are mostly spread through the air when infected people cough, sneeze or even talk, they can be spread by close personal contact or touching an infected object or surface and then touching your face. To lower your risk of getting sick by contact, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water (or use hand sanitizer when they are not available) and avoid touching your face. In particular, avoid touching your eyes or picking your nose, as these are the surfaces that cold and flu viruses are able to penetrate. Start this practice now so that you can get into the habit. Once you start making a conscious effort not to touch your face, you will be amazed at how often we all do it. Using sanitizing wipes on things like grocery carts is also probably effective.

Other things, like wearing a mask, do not really do much to prevent you from catching a cold or the flu. The infectious particles from coughs and sneezes are too small to be filtered by a standard mask once they have been in the air for a while and have dried out. Wearing a mask will help prevent you from spreading infection when you are sick because it blocks the droplets before they dry out.

If you get a cold or the flu with the usual runny nose, sore throat, cough and feeling sick, I don’t recommend going to the doctor unless you have an immune disorder or are much sicker than a usual illness. It’s a virus, and there is not much to do aside from giving your body time to get better. You are especially contagious in the first 2-3 days of the illness and heading straight in to be seen just exposes more people to the virus.

I recommend in preparation for cold and flu season to stock up on whatever cold and flu remedies make you less miserable when you are sick, so that you do not have to drag yourself to the store when you are feeling sick. It saves you a trip and helps prevent spreading the illness to others. Some of my favorites are decongestants, a sinus wash bottle and packets of solution mix, Tylenol and tissues.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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