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As a family doctor, I see no shortage of coughs, colds and congestion at work each week. Coming home to a wife and five kids, I’ve seen much of the same at home this winter. It’s natural to wonder: how can we prevent these infections? What can we do to feel better? And when do we need to see a doctor?

Since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, you need to get a flu shot. Flu shots reduce your chance of getting influenza by 50 to 90 percent. Nearly everyone over the age of 6 months should get vaccinated, but this is especially important for those over 65 and those living with infants.

A healthy lifestyle also helps prevent illness, so eat a healthy diet, get a full night’s sleep and regularly wash your hands. During flu season, washing with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been shown to reduce transmission of influenza and other viruses.

Despite your best efforts, you may still get sick. The average child under age 2 has six infections a year. Thankfully, this drops steadily as we grow. Adults average only two infections a year.

If you or someone in your family gets sick, pay attention to the symptoms. Common colds typically develop over two to three days. Symptoms usually include a runny nose, sore throat and a cough with lots of mucous. Kids often have fevers, though most adults won’t. Ninety-five percent of these colds are due to a virus, which means most medical providers will avoid prescribing antibiotics unless symptoms have lasted more than eight to 10 days. Most patients can stay home, focusing on rest, hydration and managing symptoms.

Treat fevers with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as Motrin, Advil or Aleve. Adults can use decongestants and antihistamines to relieve symptoms, though children under age 4 do worse with decongestants. Zinc sulfate, nasal saline irrigation and probiotics have been shown to help reduce colds in children.

Cold symptoms usually peak by Day Three and are better by Day Eight, though the cough can linger for a couple weeks. If you are still sick after a week, the symptoms are getting worse, or if you have a fever over 103, it’s advisable to see a healthcare provider.

Influenza can appear very similar to a cold, but symptoms appear much more suddenly. You may still have a sore throat, congestion or runny nose, but these are usually accompanied by fevers, headaches and body aches. You will typically be much more fatigued. Generally healthy individuals can recover at home, with rest, hydration and managing symptoms. If you see a doctor within the first 36 hours of symptoms, the doctor may prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu) to shorten the length of the illness. Children and older patients are generally advised to seek treatment.

So remember, get a flu shot. Wash your hands. Most colds only need symptom control and time, but if you have any concerns, please contact your primary care provider.

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Dr. Stephen Bertucci, a second-year resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247.3306.

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