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Got the sniffles? Fight back against a cold

It's the height of the cold season. Here's the right prescription for staying healthy, from Dr. Wallace Carter of NY Presbyterian Hospital.
/ Source: TODAY

Winter is the height of the virus season. It starts when people move from the outdoors to the indoors, where we share common air, touch and breathe on the same objects and spread germs. This makes it especially easy for colds, the flu and gastrointestinal viruses to jump from person to person. Dr. Wallace Carter from New York Presbyterian Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine was invited on the "Today" show to share his tips for avoiding the sniffles.

How can I tell the difference between a common cold and the flu?
The flu comes on fast with attention-getting symptoms. You can have a high fever, a racking cough and chills, and everything seems to hurt. You catch it pretty quickly and it goes away in about four to five days. The flu is just one virus, so flu vaccines and flu mists can prevent against it.

The common cold is also a virus, but unlike the flu there are over 200 strains, meaning that you can be infected by one and then later in the winter catch another. However, colds tend to have much less severe symptoms. You may have a runny nose, itchy eyes, a sore throat, a fever and feel lethargic, but you can still function.

What remedies can help if I'm currently sick?
Stay hydrated: The more dehydrated you are, the worse you will feel. Mom was right — chicken soup is good for you, as it has protein, carbohydrates, potassium, water, sugars and other ingredients your body needs to fight off the virus. You should normally drink eight glasses of water a day, and even more than that when you're sick, since you lose liquids faster (runny nose, sweating, sneezing.) You can also drink Gatorade and even soda, which can give you a boost in sodium and potassium.

Control the fever: The fever is what makes you feel the worst and places the greatest strain on your body. Fevers may put stress on your heart, lungs and muscles and make you feel run down. Fight a fever with ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You'll feel better if your fever is under control.Take proper medication: Over-the-counter drugs are helpful, but remember that they don't make the illness go away, they only relieve the symptoms. Be sure to read the ingredients on the box so you don't overdose on the same medicine. For example, you might take Tylenol Sinus for your sinus pains and then another medicine for your coughing. You have to realize that they all contain acetaminophen, so you're actually taking two times the amount you should. A lot of cold medicines contain the same active ingredient, so read carefully.

For children, parents should read medicine labels carefully because dosage limitations are smaller. For the elderly, be sure to talk to a pharmacist before taking a drug in case it doesn't react well with other medicines that have been prescribed.

Practice good hygiene:  Do the best you can to avoid becoming the local Typhoid Mary. Practice common sense — stay home if you're sick, avoid close contact with others, don't sneeze into the air or wipe your sneeze on things that others may touch, and be sure to wash your hands after you sneeze or go to the bathroom. Proper hygiene will avoid spreading what you have to others, and will keep you from catching strains from others that can make you sicker.

Do I need to call my doctor?
See your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever that doesn’t respond to medication
  • Severe chest pains
  • Extreme lethargy (especially in children who get so sleepy they don't respond to stimulation)

Is it easier to catch a cold on a plane?
Contrary to the old wives' tale that planes are a breeding ground for colds and other germs, you're actually at a lower risk of catching a cold on a plane.  If you're sitting next to someone who's really sick, then you could get sick, just as if you were on a bus or a train or at work. But planes contain high-grade air filtration systems, and it's clean air you're breathing, not recycled air.

The reason you feel groggy or fatigued after a flight is that you've been sitting for a long time, you're a little dehydrated, you've been in a very dry area and your body has been through pressure changes. After some rest and hydration you should be back to your usual self — unless you were the unlucky one sitting next to the sick guy.

How can I avoid getting sick?
Colds are inevitable, but it's not the end of the world if you catch one. The most important thing to remember is that viruses enter our bodies through the nose and mouth, so wash your hands often and stay away from people who are sick.