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Image of Snowy Forest with the words Winter is Coming

Winter is Coming: Preparing for Cold & Flu

By Kristy Warren

HBO’s Game of Thrones may be over, but winter is still well on the way—and with it, cold and flu season. Learn how you can protect yourself and what to do if you suspect you’ve caught a cold or flu.



The viruses that cause cold and flu can be spread through infected surfaces, the air, and contact with sick people. But remember, not everyone who is carrying a virus will be symptomatic, so it’s important to follow cold and flu prevention steps even when you haven’t heard anyone coughing or sneezing!


Follow these four steps to reduce your chance of getting sick:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for a full 20 seconds. If you aren't able to get to a sink, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Stop touching your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands as these are easy entry points for viruses.

  • Keep your distance from people who are sick, and if you become stick, stay home to recover to avoid spreading further infection.
A man washing hands his hands with soap and water over a stainless steel sink
  • Get a flu shot. While the flu vaccine only protects against certain strains of influenza (not the common cold), it can keep your symptoms from overlapping with colds or other illnesses.




Flu season typically begins in the fall and lasts into early spring. The very young, those with chronic health conditions, and seniors are typically the most impacted by flu.


There are many flu strains and flu-like viruses. The flu vaccine is designed to protect against the most common and burdensome influenza strains, as predicted by the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) the previous February. How well this prediction matches how the season unfolds affects the shot’s efficacy each year. Flu vaccines can prevent 1 out of every 2 episodes of influenza and lessen symptoms if you contract the flu. 


The flu shot takes two weeks to reach its full protective effect, so it’s best to get vaccinated early in the flu season, but not so early that protection wanes dramatically before the end of flu season. The flu season in northcentral PA generally runs from October to April, so Laurel Health advises getting your flu shot sometime in October for full-season coverage.

Man sick with the flu wrapped up in a blanket

Influenza affects your respiratory tract—your nose, throat, and lungs. The “stomach flu” is not influenza, and the flu shot does NOT protect you against it. 


The best way to prevent stomach bugs and different “flu-like” viruses is to keep your distance from those who are sick and frequently wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap.


To help kill germs on the go, use hand sanitizer. Be sure to work the sanitizer into your hands until it is fully dried (around 15 seconds). Remember not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.


The common cold makes the rounds frequently in the fall and winter, and most of us catch at least one each season. The culprit is more varied than you might think; over 200 different types of viruses can cause a cold. By comparison, influenza is only caused by strains of the influenza virus.


The first signs of a cold are typically a sore throat, dry cough, and runny nose. Acting quickly at the first sign can help shorten the duration of your cold:


  • Keep drinking water and eating healthy. Hydration and proper nutrition helps your body perform its best in fighting off the cold.

  • Rest. Stay home in bed when you’re sick to give your body time to recover. Pushing through cold symptoms can often suppress the body’s immune response, delaying your recovery.

  • Zinc acetate or zinc gluconate may help shorten the duration of cold symptoms.

  • Use vaporizers and over-the-counter medication for symptom relief like decongestants, cough suppressants, and fever reducers, and take care to follow the dosage directions carefully.

  • Keep others healthy by always covering your cough or sneeze, frequently washing your hands, and using a clean paper towel or elbow to avoid touching shared facets, handles, and door knobs directly.




Still sniffling weeks later? A persistent cold may not be a cold at all. Allergies do not disappear in the winter, and those with allergies to dust, mold, or dander may see a sharp spike in their symptoms as cold weather drives them to spend more time indoors.


Most colds typically last 7 – 14 days with symptoms peaking by day 7 and do not require anything aside from rest and hydration to recover. If your cold persists past 14 days, consult your doctor to determine if you’ve developed a sinus infection, are suffering from allergies, or are dealing with another illness. Likewise, most healthy individuals do not require medical intervention to recover from flu. However, if you or a loved one are considered high-risk for flu complications, or appear to be exhibiting a severe influenza infection, call your doctor.


Prescription anti-viral medications may be employed to manage your symptoms, but are most effective when prescribed within 3 days of symptom onset. 


For more information on cold and flu prevention or to schedule your flu shot, call the Laurel Health Centers at 1-833-LAURELHC.