Keep your germs to yourself during cold & flu season

By Linda Childers Dec 15, 2023 • 4 min

It's a familiar story: You wake up with a sore throat, fever and fatigue. Despite your best efforts to stay well, you now have a cold or flu virus. You want to spend all day under the covers, but carpool schedules, project deadlines and a full email inbox compel you to get up out of bed. Still, you don't want to be that person who brings a nasty bug into work. So, how do you decide whether to stay home from work or school when you're sick? And how can you keep from both catching and spreading infections? Here you'll learn about cold and flu and how to keep germs at bay.

Knowing what you've got: Flu vs. cold

First things first: Is it a cold or the flu? The cold and flu are both respiratory viruses. In general, the flu can be more severe, potentially leading to life-threatening complications, including bacterial pneumonia and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or congestive heart failure. While both viruses share many of the same signs, flu symptoms are generally more severe and come on more suddenly than those of a cold.


  • Body aches and pains
  • Fever (temperature over 100°F)
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Cough
  • Headache


  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Cough

Colds tend to start with a sore throat on the first day, and then sneezing, nasal congestion, a runny nose and a cough may develop over the next few days. In general, a cold lasts one to two weeks. The flu, on the other hand, starts more suddenly with more intense symptoms. It's common to have a fever, body aches, a headache, weakness, exhaustion and a cough. The flu usually lasts about five to seven days, although some symptoms like a cough or fatigue may last for a few weeks. 

Please don't share: Keep germs to yourself

When you're feeling under the weather, take these actions to avoid spreading germs:

  • Limit close contact with other people. Keeping your distance can help keep them from getting sick, too.
  • Stay home from work or school when you're sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after you're fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medications. Passing along your bug is unwelcome at best and can be outright dangerous for those at highest risk for complications.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw the tissue away and wash your hands.
  • Wash your hands. The simple act of handwashing is an important means of preventing the spread of the cold and flu. For clean hands, scrub vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—sing "Happy Birthday" twice through if you want to make a song out of it. Carry an antibacterial hand sanitizer for instances when you don't have access to soap and running water. Look for one that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Clean surfaces. At home, wipe down doorknobs, countertops, remotes and other high-touch areas with a disinfectant cleanser.

Recuperate right

Know that antibiotics won't help if you have a cold or the flu. Antibiotics only work to treat bacterial infections, and the flu and colds are viral infections. Getting enough rest, drinking plenty of water and taking over-the-counter medications can help ease bothersome symptoms caused by these viruses. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce a fever or relieve body aches and pains.

If you have the flu, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicines to treat it. Antiviral treatment can reduce the severity of the flu and length of time you're sick by about one day, and it may help lower the chance of flu-related complications. These medications work best when taken within two days of getting sick.

When to seek medical care

Most people with a cold or the flu get better on their own without treatment. However, if you have a high risk of complications, see your healthcare provider as soon as you develop flu symptoms. This includes older adults aged 65 and over, children younger than 5 years (especially those younger than 2 years), and pregnant women. This also includes those with a chronic illness, such as asthma or heart disease, or a weakened immune system due to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or receiving treatment for cancer, for instance. You should also see your healthcare provider if you're getting worse or aren't getting better. If you develop emergency signs of the flu, seek medical help right away. Emergency warning signs of the flu in adults include:

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen that doesn't go away
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Trouble waking up
  • Seizures
  • Not urinating
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Severe weakness
  • Fever or cough that improves but then comes back or get worse
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

Emergency warning signs of the flu in children include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Blue-colored lips or face
  • Ribs pulling in with each breath
  • Chest pain
  • Severe muscle pain or the child won't walk
  • No urine for eight hours, dry mouth or no tears when crying
  • Not alert or interacting when awake
  • Seizures
  • Fever above 104°F or any fever in a child younger than 12 weeks
  • Fever or cough that improves but then comes back or get worse
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

Tips to avoid illness: Practice prevention

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot each flu season. Having healthy habits can also lower your risk of coming down with a cold, the flu or another illness. Stay away from people who are sick, wash your hands often and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, because germs on your hands can enter your body at these locations. Getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly and keeping stress in check can also help ward off illnesses.

Clinically reviewed and updated December 2023.

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