General Health

College Health 101: Cold and Flu Season

College health can be tricky to navigate. This guide will help you understand how to recognize and treat two of the most common campus illnesses.

College campuses are filled with students eager to learn and begin their independent adult lives. Unfortunately, they’re also filled with common illnesses that you might not have experience dealing with on your own. Two of the most common college health issues? Cold and flu. This at-a-glance guide will help you recognize cold and flu symptoms, understand when to take over-the-counter medication or prescription drugs, and determine if you should consult a doctor or your campus health center for additional treatment.

Cold and Flu Season

Cold season starts around late August or early September and is typically over by March or April. Flu season is similar: it starts in October and lasts through March. February is the peak month for the flu, with the most reported cases annually. Follow along with us to learn how to handle these college health issues and avoid getting put out of commission during midterms or finals week!

Recognizing the Common Cold

Colds and upper respiratory infections are caused by a virus and tend to last about a week. Symptoms of a cold include a runny or congested nose, a sore throat, sneezing, coughing, and fever. If you have one or more of these symptoms, it’s likely you have the common cold. 


Medicines used to treat the common cold include cough suppressants, cough expectorants, antihistamines, and decongestants. Each has its own function, and is associated with certain active ingredients. For an especially persistent cold or unusually strong symptoms, you may need prescription-strength medication. Look for the following ingredients to make sure the medications you’re considering are designed to treat your symptoms:

  • Dextromethorphan — This active ingredient is found in cough suppressants, which reduce the number of times you cough. It works by decreasing activity in the part of the brain which tells your body to cough.
  • Guaifenesin — Found in cough expectorants, this ingredient reduces congestion by loosening up mucus in your nose and throat.
  • Acetaminophen — This relieves fever, aches, and pains. It’s an active ingredient found in fever medications such as Tylenol.
  • Ingredients ending in -amine — Active ingredients found in antihistamines often have -amine in their names. Antihistamines block the chemicals in your body that cause runny noses, watery eyes, and sniffling. Drowsiness can be a side effect of antihistamines, so avoid these if you need to be at your best for a test or assignment. These can be helpful for allergies as well as colds, and prescription-strength versions are available.
  • Codeine — This active ingredient treats mild to moderately severe pain. It is found in prescription drugs, as well as in some over-the-counter medications and cough syrup, and works by decreasing your body’s sensitivity to pain. Codeine is considered an opioid and should be used with caution under a doctor’s supervision.

Should You See a Doctor about Your Cold?

You should make an appointment with your doctor if you have a fever over 101.3° F, a fever lasting over five days, or a fever that returns after going away for a period of time. You should also see a doctor for a cold lasting longer than ten days. Your doctor may prescribe you a prescription drug to help treat a persistent cold. Seek immediate medical attention or go to an Emergency Room if you are experiencing severe pain or difficulty breathing.

If you are using two or more medications, always check to make sure they do not contain the same active ingredients to avoid an accidental overdose.

Recognizing the Flu

Like the common cold, the flu is caused by a respiratory virus and is highly contagious. The flu shares many traits with the cold. Coughing, sneezing, sore throat, fever, and congestion are symptoms associated with both. However, symptoms of flu can also include high fever, severe aches and pains, vomiting or diarrhea (though these are more common in children), and weakness or fatigue. The flu may last just a few days, but it is not unusual for a flu to last up to two weeks.


It’s important to treat the flu right away, because a severe or untreated flu can lead to complications such as ear and sinus infections or, in some cases, pneumonia. Many of the same medications used to treat a cold can also be used to treat the flu. Consult the active ingredients listed in the Common Cold section to determine what medications you may need. Active ingredients specific to flu medications can be found here:

  • Oseltamivir — This active ingredient is found in the prescription drug Tamiflu, an antiviral medication which is prescribed to treat early cases of the flu. Oseltamivir prevents the spread of flu in the body. It can also be used to prevent flu, but is not a substitute for the flu shot.
  • Zanamivir — This is a neuraminidase inhibitor and, like Oseltamivir, it works to stop the spread of flu in your body. It is an active ingredient in Relenza, a prescription antiviral medication that comes in powder form and is taken using a device similar to an inhaler.
  • Peramivir — An injection of this substance can be used to treat flu in people who have had symptoms for less than two days. The injection typically lasts 15 – 30 minutes and is not a substitute for the flu shot.

Note: All of the above prescription drug treatments should only be used for patients who have had flu symptoms for less than two days. Some patients have experienced severe side effects, so be sure to consult your doctor if you are experiencing an adverse reaction after using one of these medications.

Should You See a Doctor about Your Flu?

Most flus will not require a visit to the doctor, and will improve on their own as long as you drink plenty of fluids and allow your body time to rest. If you are considered at-risk for flu complications, suspect you have a sinus infection, or if you believe your flu may have become pneumonia or bronchitis, visit your college health center or make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible! If you are experiencing dehydration and or are unable to hold down fluids, go to an Emergency Room.

The flu shot is the most effective way to prevent flu, yet only 8-39% of college students are vaccinated each year.

The Best Treatment is Prevention

Your health is invaluable, especially during your college years. Good college health habits, like eating well and getting enough sleep, are some of your best defenses against common illnesses. During cold and flu season, you should also make a point to wash your hands often, and avoid contact with those already infected. There’s no hard-and-fast method of preventing the common cold, but flu prevention is simple: an annual flu shot is the best way to prevent the contraction of influenza. It’s likely that your campus health center offers flu shots — take advantage of this opportunity to safeguard your health! And if you’re ever in a bind, you can always return to this guide for tips about dealing with cold and flu.