(Un)welcome Back: Cold & Flu Season

As the temperatures drop and the seasons change, we’re making our way back to one of the most dreaded times of the year: cold and flu season. Current SARS-COV-2 pandemic aside, it’s interesting to take a look back at the history of cold and flu season. We can see how things used to be versus how they are now, and what we each can do to avoid having an eventful cold and flu season. 

But first… what is the flu? How is it different from a cold?

“Flu” is short for influenza, which is essentially a viral infection that targets the respiratory system, mainly the sinuses and the lungs. The main differences in the two mainly revolve around intensity, how quickly symptoms begin, and how fast they subside (CDC, 2021). The flu is fast acting and symptoms usually come out of nowhere (or so it might feel), and take a toll on your body for about a week. While the cold might give you a few warning signs like a runny nose before you get the rest of your symptoms, which will generally be mild and subside after a few days. 

Treatment for the cold is usually over-the-counter remedies, rest, hydration and taking it easy. The treatments for the flu are similar, but for some higher-risk individuals your doctor may end up prescribing antivirals to help shorten the length of the flu and reduce risk of the flu getting worse. This is mainly due to the fact that flu can lead to other illnesses like pneumonia in high-risk patients, while a cold will just come and go. 

Image Source: Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

A brief history of the flu 

One of the first major flu pandemics in “modern times” was the Russian Flu of 1889, which took roughly 1,000,000 lives. However, flu pandemics and epidemics have been occurring for a long time, but becoming documented starting around the 1300’s. This type of sickness would only begin to spread more once intercontinental travel via ships became possible (and then spread of disease became exacerbated once air travel began). It wasn’t until 1933 that scientists working at the UK Medical Research Council were able to isolate the influenza virus for the first time, proving to be a pivotal moment in the history of science (Levine, 2018). 

Though health care was not what it is today, patterns in common symptoms like cough, fever, general fatigue, and deaths attributed to the influenza started to be more widely recorded between the 1300’s and the 1700’s (Morens & Taubenberger, 2012). Treatments through history have always revolved around resting to recover, and managing pain symptoms through medications, but in 1936 the first flu vaccine was made! A few years later, in 1945 the first flu vaccine was approved in the United States (Levine, 2018). The exciting discovery and use of flu vaccines have made handling and lessening the impact of cold and flu season possible! 

What were some of the most prevalent cold & flu seasons?

One of the most historic and well known influenza pandemics was the 1918 Flu, or also known as the Spanish Flu. The 1918 Flu was a particularly deadly strain of H1N1 because it came in waves infecting both humans and swine, starting in spring of 1918 in North America, Europe and Asia, and then having a second wave in again in the fall, and ultimately taking roughly 21 million lives (Institute of Medicine, 2005). H1N1 may sound familiar, because back in 2009 there was an H1N1 pandemic that broke out starting in the United States, then making its way across the world and infecting 60.8 million people (CDC, 2019). Luckily, since this pandemic broke out after vaccines were developed, a vaccine was able to be used to help fight H1N1, making it a much less deadly case of H1N1 and only resulting in death for about 580,000 people (CDC, 2019).

What causes “cold & flu season”?

Cold and flu season usually starts when the temperature goes down and we all end up spending more time inside. Viruses prefer the colder, dry air that circulates in the fall and winter and are able to survive better in this type of climate rather than the hot and humid climate of summer. Being outside in fresh air helps lessen the spread of aerosolized particles of viruses and other germs that exit our noses and mouths due to air circulation. Once we’re spending all our time inside, air circulation isn’t as good and it is much easier to spread germs to one another.  

What can I do to avoid getting sick?

Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools to help you and your loved ones avoid getting the flu. The flu vaccine has been a reliable technology for over 75 years now, and reduces the risk of contracting the flu by 40-60% (CDC, 2021). Of course you should always wash your hands frequently, use a face covering, and make sure that you maintain a healthy lifestyle to set your immune system up for success this cold and flu season!

If you are interested in reading the articles mentioned in this blog post, check them out below!:

The Story of Influenza:

Prevent Seasonal Flu:

2009 H1N1 Pandemic:

Outbreak: 10 of the Worst Pandemics in History:

Pandemic Influenza: Certain Uncertainties:

History of the Flu: 18 Pivotal Moments in History that Have Brought us Closer to a Cure:

Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well do Flu Vaccines Work?

Cold Versus Flu

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