Reducing Your Risk of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
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Reducing Your Risk of Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

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There are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of catching a cold or influenza. They include the following:

Wash Your Hands Often

Hand washing is the most neglected, yet most effective, method of disease containment. The primary way of spreading both colds and influenza is person-to-person contact. Effective ways to prevent respiratory infections include: 1) washing your hands thoroughly and often, 2) avoiding hand-to-hand passage of germs and droplet sprays from sneezing and coughing, and 3) using alcohol-based hand gels when washing is not possible.

Avoid Crowds During Influenza Season

This may not be a very practical suggestion for everyone. However, if you are at high risk of catching a cold or influenza, or at risk for developing complications from these infections, try to avoid crowded areas or people who are obviously sick during the winter influenza season.

Get a Flu Vaccine

Each year, the World Health Organization tries to determine which strains of the influenza virus will be most dangerous in the upcoming influenza season. Vaccines are developed for these strains.

In a recent CDC press briefing, it was reported that the vaccine used for the 2007-2008 flu season may not provide adequate protection against the A (H3N2) and B strains. However, vaccination can still weaken the virus and prevent complications.

Anyone may benefit from a flu vaccine, but it is strongly recommended every fall for several groups of people who are at the highest risk for complications. These include:

  • People aged 50 or older
  • Infants and children 6-59 months old
  • Residents of chronic care facilities and nursing homes
  • Those with chronic illnesses, especially of the heart, lungs, blood, and kidneys
  • People with a weakened immune system
  • Women who are pregnant during the flu season
  • Healthcare workers who come in contact with sick patients
  • Caregivers or household members of persons in high risk groups

The vaccine has been associated with fewer hospitalizations and deaths from influenza or pneumonia among the elderly living in the community. *2

Flu vaccines are available at doctors' offices, hospitals, local public health offices, and at some workplaces, stores, or shopping malls. A possible side effect is a mild "flu-like" reaction, including fever, aching, and fatigue. Up to 5% of people experience these symptoms after getting the influenza vaccine.

There are two types of vaccination: an inactivated virus vaccine given as an injection and a live-attentuated virus vaccine given intranasally (FluMist). The shot is approved for people over the age of 6 months (with some restrictions). The intranasal vaccine is approved for people ages 5-49 years, also with some restrictions.

Two forms of flu vaccine are available—injectable and nasal spray (FluMist). In a recent study comparing the effectiveness of the two forms in children, researchers found that the nasal spray led to fewer cases of influenza through a single flu season. Talk to your doctor about which vaccine is the most appropriate for you or your child. *1


If you are a high-risk patient, your physician may prescribe an antiviral medication such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza) for prophylaxis. Antiviral drugs are recommended for people with chronic illness who have not been vaccinated or received a vaccine after the start of a flu outbreak. The CDC is no longer recommending use of amantadine or rimantadine for treatment or prevention because resistance among strains of influenza A can emerge rapidly.


Beers MH, Berkow R. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy .17th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons; 1999.

Drug Facts and Comparisons . 56th ed. Facts and Comparisons; 2001.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Isselbacher KJ, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine . 14th ed. New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2000.

Centers for Disease Control. Prevention and control of influenza. MMWR . 2006;55(RR10):1-2.

*13/2/2007 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Belshe RB, Edwards KM, Vesikari T, et al. Live attenuated versus inactivated influenza vaccine in infants and young children. N Engl J Med. 2007 Feb 15;356(7):685-696.

*210/15/2007 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance: Nichol KL, Nordin JD, Nelson DB, Mullooly JP, Hak E. Effectiveness of influenza vaccine in the community-dwelling elderly. N Engl J Med. 2007;357:1373-1381.

*³2/13/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance CDC news conference on influenza. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Accessed February 13, 2008.

Last reviewed January 2007 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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