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How to avoid catching a cold this fall

The leaves are falling and the sniffles are starting. Autumn’s arrival often brings an uptick in colds, but you can take steps to reduce your risk.   

Most colds are transmitted by hand contact, explains Daniel M. Feckoury, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. Contrary to popular belief, he says, chillier weather itself isn’t behind a rise in colds this time of year. 

Instead, people are just spending more time in closer quarters—giving viruses perfect opportunities to spread. 

“We’re inside more,” he explains, “and we’re touching more of the same things.”

If you do get sick, it’s important to monitor your symptoms and ensure they don’t worsen or indicate another illness, like flu.

How to protect yourself from germs

Hand hygiene is paramount, Dr. Feckoury says. Cold viruses are transmitted as people touch, cough and sneeze, so keeping your hands clean is a key protective measure.

Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating or touching your face, and after sneezing, coughing or using the bathroom. Antibacterial gels can replace handwashing in a pinch.

Keep your work surfaces clean too, he says. If you spend time in busy shared settings, like offices, wipe down everything you touch.

Once you start displaying cold symptoms, he says, there’s usually nothing else you can do to ward off illness. The virus has to run its course, and your job is to stay hydrated and well rested in the meantime.

Dr. Feckoury adds that while it’s OK to try supplements, like powder mixes spiked with vitamin C, they usually won’t do you much good in preventing or treating colds.

“There may be some use for it,” he says. “But it’s really about drinking water.” 

How to treat a fall cold

Aside from getting enough water and rest, you can take over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms. Dr. Feckoury also encourages nasal saline irrigation, if you’re comfortable with it.

Irrigation devices, like the neti pot, can reduce congestion and discourage bacteria growth in your sinuses.

“A neti pot that flushes the sinuses out gets rid of a lot of that stagnant fluid,” Dr. Feckoury says. “I’m a huge fan of neti pots.”

When to see a doctor

Adults usually catch two to three colds each year, Dr. Feckoury says. While colds are uncomfortable and inconvenient, most are not dangerous.

Some people, however, are at higher risk for complications from cold and flu, Dr. Feckoury says. They include:

  • Children 5 and under
  • Adults 65 and over
  • People with certain medical conditions, including asthma, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and epilepsy

These groups should see a doctor right away, and they need to be tested for the flu. Though flu symptoms sometimes mimic colds, they feature a few unique signifiers. When watching for flu, be on the lookout for:

  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Muscle pain

“With a common cold, a fever is actually quite rare,” Dr. Feckoury says. “With the flu, the fever can be very high.”

Anyone who suspects they’ve developed the flu should see a doctor as soon as possible, he adds. If you don’t have flu symptoms but find your mucus has changed color (typically from clear to green), you may have developed a secondary bacterial infection, and that requires a visit to your doctor too.

For the most part, though, a run-of-the-mill cold doesn’t pose much of a danger. Good hygiene habits can protect you to some extent, but once you’re sick, you’re best to take a few days off and get the rest your body needs. A doctor's visit probably won't be necessary. 

“If you’re someone who’s not one of those high-risk individuals,” Dr. Feckoury says, “patience is going to be OK.”

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