As cold and flu season comes around, it seems some people get sick more often, and others avoid illness all together. What causes these differences? Do some stay healthy because of their genetics, immune system or lifestyle?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Farrah Hafeez, D.O., a family medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. “Researchers are exploring why some people are more susceptible to cold and flu viruses. While we don’t have all the answers, we believe that your environment, genetics and immune system play a key role in determining your risk for these illnesses.”
Cold And Flu Virus Basics
You’ve probably experienced a cold or flu at one time or another. These conditions are viral infections affecting the respiratory system, including the nose, throat, airways and lungs.
Most people get more than one cold per year. Flu infections tend to be less frequent, occurring every few years.
Common cold symptoms tend to develop slowly and include:
- Cough and sore throat
- Fever up to 102°F
- Headaches and muscle aches
- Nasal congestion
- Watery eyes
Flu symptoms are similar but may develop more quickly and become more severe. Other viruses, such as COVID-19, may cause more distinct respiratory infections along with symptoms like loss of taste or smell.
What Factors Increase Risk Of Cold And Flu?
We each have unique characteristics that can affect our susceptibility to cold and flu infections. Some factors that may play a role in how often we have a cold or flu include:
- Environment: If someone in your office or home has a cold or flu, you’re more at risk for infection. You can touch a surface they’ve used and pick up the virus. Or you may inhale infected air particles after someone coughs or sneezes nearby.
- Genetics: “Researchers believe that genetics may play even a bigger role in our risk for infection,” says Dr. Hafeez. Certain genetic characteristics may provide additional protection from infection, while others may increase our susceptibility.
- Immune system: Our immune system consists of cells, tissues and organs to help fight infection and disease. Many health conditions may affect the immune system’s ability to fight infection. You may be born with an illness or acquire a disease that weakens the immune response. Past exposure to viruses and bacteria may protect you from future infections if you have a healthy immune system.
“Investigators are studying the mechanisms that make us sick and how these factors come together to increase risk or protect against illnesses like cold and flu,” says Dr. Hafeez. These factors may also influence the risk for other viruses, such as COVID-19.
“Some data suggests that individuals have naturally acquired COVID-19 immunity from previous infections with common cold and coronaviruses,” she adds. “Other research shows that people with higher levels of T cells [immune cells] are less likely to develop COVID-19. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine may also reduce the risk for infection.”
Tips For Cold And Flu Prevention
Dr. Hafeez recommends taking these steps to reduce your risk for infection during cold and flu season:
- Avoid touching your face, especially after coming in contact with a surface that others have touched.
- Clean and disinfect commonly used surfaces.
- Get your flu vaccine early.
- Prioritize self-care (like sleep, healthy eating and exercise).
- Wash your hands to stop the spread of germs.
When To See A Doctor for Cold And Flu Symptoms
“There is no cure for the common cold,” says Dr. Hafeez. “But you can find relief from discomfort by getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids and using over-the-counter medications.”
Colds and flu viruses tend to last 7 to 10 days. If symptoms last longer, contact your doctor. You may have a bacterial infection that requires treatment with an antibiotic.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between a cold, the flu and a COVID-19 infection.
Take a COVID-19 PCR or antigen test if you suspect you’ve been exposed. Bear in mind that you may have symptoms for several days before a COVID test turns positive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends following these guidelines for testing and isolation. Contact your doctor if you test positive to determine the best treatment option.
Seek immediate medical care if you experience:
- Pain when breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in your chest or wheezing
Dr. Farrah Hafeez is a family medicine doctor who sees patients at Henry Ford Macomb Health Center - Bruce Township and Henry Ford Macomb Medical Pavilion.