Main navigation | Main content
Influenza, or the flu, is a viral respiratory infection that affects the nose, throat, trachea, and bronchi. For most healthy adults, influenza feels like a bad cold. Symptoms of influenza include:
A cold is a viral respiratory infection of the nose and throat. Symptoms of a cold include:
Colds are very common. The average adult experiences three to four colds each year. Viruses cause colds, and no medicine or shot will cure an uncomplicated cold. Colds are usually not serious. Most patients with colds do not need to be seen by a health care provider. Rarely, colds can lead to more serious illnesses such as sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and otitis media.
The fever lasts two to three days, the runny nose five to 14 days, and the cough two to three weeks. If you have flu symptoms, please stay home to care for yourself and prevent spreading the flu to others. If you have questions about your flu symptoms or treatment and would like to speak to a nurse, please call the 24-Hour Medical Information Nurse Phone Line at 612-625-7900.
Unfortunately, health care providers really cannot provide treatment for most cases of the flu or a cold. However, you can usually take care of a cold or the flu without a doctor’s assistance. You should call the Boynton Health Service Medical Information Nurse at 612-625-7900 if:
Most cold medicines are not helpful. They cannot remove dried mucus from the nose. Antihistamines are only helpful if you also have nasal allergies. Antibiotics are not helpful unless you develop an ear or sinus infection.
Pain and fever—For pain and fever relief, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). Do not use aspirin unless you are 17 years of age or older. For those older than 65, acetaminophen is generally considered safer than ibuprofen. Don’t take acetaminophen if you have liver disease. Take only as directed and read instructions thoroughly on all medications.
Sore throat—Use lozenges, hard candy, or warm broth. Gargling with salt water every four hours can help. Add 1/4 teaspoon of table salt to eight ounces (240 mL) of warm water.
Cough—Use cough drops. You may also try naproxen (Aleve) (do not use ibuprofen while taking) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Do not drink alcohol or drive while taking diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Take only as directed and read instructions thoroughly on all medications.
Hydrate—Drink liquids (six to eight glasses of water daily). If the air in your home is dry, use a cool mist humidifier.
Runny nose—Blow your nose. Apply petroleum jelly to nasal openings to protect from irritation (cleanse skin first).
Blocked nose—Use nasal washes. Nasal saline may be purchased or made at home. To make saline nose drops:
Another option is to take a hot shower. Breathe in the moist air through the nose and then blow each nostril.
Flu and colds are spread by coughing and sneezing. Spread is rapid because the incubation period is only 24 to 36 hours and the viruses are very contagious. You can return to work or school when the fever has been gone for at least 24 hours (without fever–reducing medication) and you feel well enough to participate in normal activities.
Most cold and flu viruses are transferred from the fingertips to the eyes, nose, or mouth where they can enter your body. To help prevent the spread of colds and flu:
The flu vaccine is recommended as a way to prevent the flu, especially for people who are at high risk for developing serious complications—such as the elderly and people with asthma or other lung disease, heart disease, or another chronic illness. The vaccine is also recommended for individuals who work in health care facilities and are exposed to respiratory illness repeatedly.
Flu vaccine contains a killed or weakened version of the influenza virus and prepares your body to fight this year's influenza virus only. If you are vaccinated for flu, you will be partially or completely immune to the flu, but the vaccine does not protect against colds. For more information about flu vaccine, call 612-625-7900.
Flu vaccine clinics are held at the University of Minnesota each fall.