As the winter days trudge on, the snow falls, the winds blows, the temperatures plummet, and colds and flu spread. It’s just that time of year. It’s the season of runny noses, hacking and coughing, and kleenex.
While we may not be able to totally escape getting sick, we can do our best to prevent it if we can understand what causes colds and flu and how it spreads.
What Causes Colds And Flu?
Colds and the flu are caused by viruses. Viruses are tiny particles that can infect the cells of plants and animals making them sick. Viruses aren’t exactly organisms. They don’t eat or grow. Viruses are basically a glob of DNA encased in protein.
Viruses can’t even replicate, or make more of, themselves. They need the cells of organisms to replicate and this is how infections, like colds and flu, takes place. A virus will inject its DNA into a cell of the organism. This DNA essentially hi-jacks the cell so that the cell starts making copies of the virus instead of it’s normal function. Soon, the cell dies and releases all the viruses it produced and these viruses infect other cells the same way causing a viral infection in the organism.
Viral infections are different from bacterial infections like strep throat, whooping cough, and some sinus infections. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. Viruses cannot. The best fight against a virus is a healthy immune system.
Learn more about the immune system HERE!
How Do Colds And Flu Spread?
The viruses that cause colds and flu are found in droplets in the infected person’s respiratory system. When the infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks, those droplets enter the air and fall onto surfaces or get onto hands when a person covers their mouth or wipes their nose.
Viruses can live on surfaces for 5-6 hours. When someone touches a surface or hands where the virus is present and still viable and then touch their mouth, nose, or eyes, the virus can enter that person’s body. This can cause a viral infection.
Why Is Winter Colds And Flu Season?
According to the CDC, December through February is peak cold and flu season. The entire cold and flu season runs from October through May. We do not know exactly why these infections affect more people during the winter months, but researchers have come up with some theories.
Cold and flu cases may increase during the winter for many reasons. It could be because we are all more likely to stay indoors and keep close quarters with family and friends, so the viruses are more easily shared. Some research indicates that the cooler, drier air of winter makes it easier for the viruses to spread through the air. Recent studies have even indicated that our immune systems do not work as well in cooler temperatures.
Whatever the reason, we can take precautions to limit our risk of getting sick.
9 Ways To Prevent Colds And Flu
Since we know what causes colds and the flu, we can take an educated approach to avoiding infection. While not foolproof, these simple tips will dramatically reduce your risk of getting sick and spreading it to others.
Wash Your Hands
I’m not talking just running your hands under the water for a couple seconds. Use soap and water. Scrub your entire hand front and back and don’t forget around and under your nails. Washing your hands in soapy water for at least 20 seconds is enough to get rid of viruses and bacteria you may have picked up on your skin. If your kids get bored and don’t want to count to 20, have the sing Happy Birthday or the ABC song.
When should you wash your hands? Often. Before and after you eat. After using the bathroom. After you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze. Before preparing food. After taking care of a sick person.
Use Hand Sanitizer
There are times and places where hand washing is not available, but needed. Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for these occasions. Hand sanitizers are not as effective as hand washing, but will kill most of the bacteria or virus on the skin.
To learn about the chemistry behind hand sanitizers, check out this video from the American Chemical Society.
Cold and flu season is not the time to be sharing drinking cups, plates, or utensils. If there is a snotty kid at a playdate, that might not be the time to share toys either. This can be hard for kids, but can be huge in keeping them healthy.
Teach Kids To Keep It Covered
This tip is to keep others healthy and is for adults, too. As I’m writing this at a coffee shop, a grown man in professional dress just sneezed into this hand, wiped it on his pants, and then proceeded to grab his wallet to pay for his coffee. Um. Gross.
Instead of sneezing or coughing into their hands or completely uncovered, teach your kids to sneeze or cough into a kleenex or their elbow. Immediately throw away the kleenex, wash hands, or use hand sanitizer. This keeps those viruses and other germs from spreading to others.
Wipe Down Surfaces
Since viruses can live for several hours on surfaces, clean common surfaces with a disinfecting spray or wipe often. Think doorknobs, remotes, light switches, and counters.
Drink Lots Of Water
Staying well hydrated is a vital to staying healthy in general. One study has shown that drinking lots of water helps the body’s immune response.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Make sure to get lots of quality sleep. Studies have shown that lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep negatively affects the immune system. A strong immune system is needed to fight off viruses!
Learn more about the immune system HERE!
Eat Good Food
Your body needs a variety of vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy. The immune response in particular requires nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. WebMD even has a list of foods to eat, as well as foods to avoid, when you have a cold.
Colds And Flu Lesson Resources
Want to make a unit study or larger colds and flu lesson for your students? Check out these resources.
Germy Hands Experiment – teaches kids the why and how of washing their hands
I hold a master’s degree in child development and early education and am working on a post-baccalaureate in biology. I spent 15 years working for a biotechnology company developing IT systems in DNA testing laboratories across the US. I taught K4 in a private school, homeschooled my children, and have taught on the mission field in southern Asia. For 4 years, I served on our state’s FIRST Lego League tournament Board and served as the Judging Director. I own thehomeschoolscientist and also write a regular science column for Homeschooling Today Magazine. You’ll also find my writings on the CTCMath blog. Through this site, I have authored over 50 math and science resources.