Sometimes it seems there's no justice: The fall allergy season ends just in time for the cold season to begin, then the cold season takes you right into the flu time that starts in December and runs through March or April, which is when the pollen starts your nose a-running again.
Actually, winter woes are nothing to joke about. Colds can make you miserable, and flu is even worse. Those three little letters stand for influenza, which can kill, either by itself or by leaving you vulnerable to life-threatening diseases like pneumonia.
And this year, the virus making the rounds is likely to be particularly virulent, says Dr. Walter Gunn, epidemiologist in the viral diseases division at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
It's an Influenza A type, and when you get it, you're really sick: It hits like a ton of bricks, with fever, severe muscle pain, headache, and fatigue, and dry, hacking cough. You could also have a runny nose, nausea, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, and you could stay sick for a week or two.
This strain of flu, Dr. Gunn says, typically hospitalizes and kills more people than the milder B-type that predominated last year. "In an average year, 20,000 people die [from flu-related illnesses]," he says. "In a light year, 10,000 die. In 1957, which was a very bad year, 70,000 died."
Vaccine to the rescue
However, health authorities have come up with a vaccine, which should be "70 to 90 percent effective in preventing flu in young, healthy people," says Dr. Gunn. "In older people, it's 50 percent effective in preventing flu, but 85 percent in preventing death."
Made from a killed virus that can't cause the flu, the vaccine is active against two strains of Influenza A and one strain of B. On occasion, however, it can cause side effects such as fever, muscle aches, and general malaise, starting six to 12 hours afterward and lasting about a day, according to Dr. Diane Dwyer, epidemiologist at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Almost anyone who wants to avoid flu can get the shot, she says, but it's specifically recommended for those at risk for complications.
According to Dr. Gunn, the at-risk category includes people aged 65 and older, people who live in nursing homes and chronic care facilities; people of any age who have cardio-vascular or lung disease, people with compromised immune systems; and children on long-term aspirin therapy.
But those who work or live in proximity to people in any of the risk categories should get shots, too, so that they don't catch and then transmit the disease, Dr. Gunn advises. Children under 6 months should not have the shot, but their parents should, to reduce the chance of infecting them.
However, people allergic to eggs should not have it, he says, because the vaccine is grown in egg. And pregnant women in the high risk categories should ask their physicians about immunization.
"It's never too late in the season to get it," says Dr. Dwyer. However, nowis the best time to gain protection against the coming onslaught.
Indeed, even if you hate the thought of shots, now is a good time to be vaccinated: It takes about two weeks for the immunity to kick in -- and this is a very contagious bug, says Dr. Gunn. "If someone sneezes or coughs, the wave of particles can go 20 feet."
The hard, cold truth
Although you may feel equally bad with either illness, colds and flu are not the same, says Dr. Walter Hakkarinen, chairman of the department of family practice at Franklin Square Hospital. While the onset of flu is sudden, a cold, he says, will give you about a day's warning as it creeps up on you. It escalates from a scratchy throat to a headache and stuffed-up nose, which then turns wet so you cough, sneeze and blow. You'll feel better in five to seven days.
Still, you catch the two diseases in the same way: That is, you inhale virus-laden particles that someone else has coughed or sneezed into the air, or you sniff particles an infected person has left on his hands and transferred to yours. You could also get virus into your system when you rub your eyes; it moves through the tear ducts and into the nasal cavity.
"Aggressive hand-washing can help protect you," says Dr. Hakkarinen.
"Stay away from people who already have colds," advises Dr. Kevin Ferentz, assistant professor of family practice at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Also, he says, get adequate rest and proper nutrition, and stop smoking: The natural process by which you bring foreign matter up out of the lungs doesn't work well in smokers.
It doesn't work well when you're out in the cold either, he says, so it's possible that frigid weather could make you more susceptible.
On the other hand, it doesn't work well in very dry indoor heat either, so a vaporizer or humidifier might protect you, he says.
Stress reduction might boost your immunity, too: An experiment reported in the Aug. 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who reported a high level of psychological stress were more likely to have cold symptoms after infection with virus-containing nose drops than were people who had a lower level of stress.
The bottom line, however, is that doctors don't know what it is that makes us more or less vulnerable to other people's viruses, Dr. Ferntz says. "One person with a cold can sneeze in a room, and some people will get sick while others won't, and we don't know why."