1. Common Health Problems

Colds & Flu

“I used to get colds often, especially around exam times. Now I make sure I wash my hands a lot. I think this helps me get fewer colds.”

– Sylvia P., Brooklyn College

Colds and seasonal flu are the main reason students miss class due to illness. Both are caused by viruses. Flu is short for influenza, a virus that affects your upper respiratory system. “Stomach flu” is stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, etc. caused by a virus in the stomach and intestines. For these symptoms, see “Abdominal Pain,” “Diarrhea,” and/or “Vomiting & Nausea.”

Is it a cold or is it the flu? See the chart below to learn the differences between the two.

Flu symptoms come on suddenly and affect the body all over. Cold symptoms mostly affect you above the neck. When you get the flu, you are also more prone to bronchitis, sinus, and ear infections.


  1. Wash your hands often. Keep them away from your nose, eyes, and mouth. Use an instant hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands.

  2. Try not to touch people or their things when they have a cold or the flu.

  3. Get regular exercise. Eat well. See “Eat Well & Get Regular Exercise.”

  4. Get adequate rest. See “Set Up Good Sleep Habits.”

  5. Get a yearly flu vaccine, as advised.


Self-care (see below) treats colds and most cases of the flu.

Prescribed antiviral medicines, such as rimantadine, may make flu symptoms milder and help you recover sooner if started within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms. Antibiotics do not treat cold and flu viruses.


  1. Drink lots of liquids.

  2. Take an over-the-counter medicine for muscle aches, and/or fever, but don’t take aspirin if you have flu-like symptoms. (See “Pain Relievers” in “Over-the-Counter Medication Safety.”)

  3. Use an over-the-counter saline nasal spray, such as Ocean brand. Use as directed on the label.

  4. Use a cool-mist vaporizer in your room.

  5. Have chicken soup. It helps clear mucus.

  6. Take echinacea, zinc lozenges, and/or vitamin C, as advised by your health care provider, when cold or flu symptoms start. Don’t take echinacea and/or zinc lozenges long term. These do not prevent colds and flu.

For a Sore Throat

  1. Gargle every few hours with a solution of 1/4 teaspoon of salt dissolved in 1 cup of warm water. Make sure the salt is dissolved.

  2. Drink tea with lemon (with or without honey).

  3. Suck on hard candy or a medicated lozenge.

  4. See, also, “To Treat a Sore Throat.”

With or following the flu, do any of the following symptoms of meningitis occur?

  1. Stiff neck (can’t bend the head forward to touch the chin to the chest).

  2. Severe, persistent headache.

  3. Red or purple rash that doesn’t fade when pressure is applied to the skin.

  4. Seizure.

  5. Lethargy.

Questions to Ask

Signs & Symptoms

Prevent spreading cold and flu viruses, use tissues when you blow your nose.

After a recent case of the flu, are any of these signs of Reye’s Syndrome present?

  1. Sudden, repeated vomiting.

  2. Pain in the upper right area of the abdomen.

  3. Rapid mental status changes (agitation, confusion, delirium).

  4. Increased pulse and breathing rate.

  5. Lethargy.

  6. Decreasing level of awareness.

With the flu, do you have severe or increasing shortness of breath or severe wheezing?

Do you have 2 or more of these signs and symptoms of a sinus infection?

  1. Fever over 101°F (38.3°C).

  2. Green, yellow, or bloody-colored nasal discharge for more than 3 days. A drainage into the back of the throat that tastes bad may occur.

  3. Pain (usually throbbing) around the eye(s), cheek(s), upper jaw(s), and/or between the nose and eye socket(s).

  4. Headache worsens when you bend forward. OTC pain relievers don’t stop the pain.

With a cold or flu do you have any of these problems?

  1. A fever over 104°F (40°C).

  2. A sore throat that is bright red or has white spots.

  3. An earache that persists.

  4. A cough with mucus that is yellow, green, or gray.

  5. Fever or other symptoms like coughing are getting worse.

Have you had a cold or the flu for more than a week and not felt better using Self-Care? Or, do you have new symptoms?