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Frequently Asked Questions

What's the difference between a cold and the flu?
These illnesses are caused by different viruses, but they can have similar symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell them apart. In general, cold symptoms are much milder than flu symptoms. Both illnesses can cause sore throat, stuffy nose, runny nose, cough, and mild fever, but the flu tends to cause higher fever, chills, body aches, and fatigue.

Could my cold symptoms actually be allergies?
If you're sniffling but don't feel generally ill, it's possible you have allergies instead of a cold. Pay attention if symptoms last longer than two weeks, and if you also have red, itchy eyes -- these are indications of allergic rhinitis.

How effective are natural remedies for the cold, such as zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C?
Some studies show that zinc nasal sprays can help reduce how long a cold lasts and make symptoms less severe. Other studies, however, show that zinc isn't all that helpful and can actually damage your sense of smell. Recent studies on echinacea show that it doesn't do much to prevent colds, but it may make a cold last for a shorter time. Research on vitamin C found similar results.

Can my cold be treated with antibiotics?
Antibiotics fight bacteria, but colds are caused by viruses. In general, you shouldn't use antibiotics unless they are necessary, as overuse can promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Should I stay at home if I have a cold?
Most people are contagious for the first few days of a cold, so it's best to stay home during that time to avoid spreading the virus to others.

Can you catch a cold from cold air?
No. The only way to catch a cold is by coming in contact with a virus. However, cold air can irritate conditions like asthma, which could make the body more receptive to a cold virus.

I got my annual flu shot and still got sick with influenza. Why didn't my flu shot work?
Every year, experts develop a new flu vaccine that protects against the strains of influenza viruses that research suggests will be most common. However, influenza viruses are constantly changing, and it's impossible to predict with 100 percent certainty which strains will be most common in a given year. For these reasons, some people who receive a flu shot may still get sick with influenza.

Can the flu shot cause the flu?
No. The flu shot does not contain live viruses, so it cannot give you the flu. The vaccine may trigger an immune response, however, which can cause a few mild symptoms, such as achy muscles or mild fever.

I'm a healthy person. Is it really that important to get a flu vaccine?
It's true that most serious flu complications and flu deaths occur in the very young, the very old, and people with weakened immune systems. However, vaccination of healthy people reduces their chance of becoming infected with the flu virus and spreading the virus on to more vulnerable populations. The more people who receive the vaccine in general, the better the vaccine works to prevent an epidemic.

What is walking pneumonia? Is it different than regular pneumonia?
There are many types of pneumonia. Walking pneumonia is an informal term for pneumonia that isn't severe enough to require bed rest or hospitalization. It's often caused by a type of bacterium that produces milder symptoms that come on more gradually than other types of pneumonia.

Can nonsmokers get COPD or lung cancer?
It's not common, but it's possible. For some people, breathing secondhand smoke or other harmful irritants may be the cause. For others, there may be a genetic cause.