The holiday season may bring gifts and hot chocolate, but the drop in temperature also means sore throats, runny noses and body aches.
But new research suggests it’s unlikely to get the flu and a cold at the same time, and that having the flu may help prevent contracting a cold.
A study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who suffered from the flu were far less likely to contract rhinovirus, which causes colds.
It’s easy to confuse the flu and a cold, both respiratory illnesses with many shared symptoms including sneezing, coughing and fatigue.
However, the flu is often more intense and can lead to serious health complications like pneumonia and ear infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland examined data from more than 40,000 patients there between 2005 and 2013. They tested each person for 11 different cold and flu viruses to analyze how the two illnesses interacted.
“It was clear that flu and rhinovirus — which causes the common cold — interact in a negative way,” Dr. Pablo Murcia, one of the study’s authors, told CNN. “When there is a lot of flu in the population, there is little rhinovirus, and vice versa.”
“It’s very interesting if true,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
“I think what they’re saying is virus number one initiates an inflammatory response which then acts as a barrier to the second virus,” Schaffner said. “I think there are also some data to suggest that’s two viruses cannot simultaneously infect the same cell.”
The finding might explain why the cold virus declines when the flu peaks each winter and spikes during the spring and fall when the flu is less common.
Dr. Sema Nickbakhsh, the study’s lead author, said in a press release that they are still investigating the relationship between the flu and common cold, including possibilities that the viruses compete over cells to infect or the body’s immune response to one virus makes it harder for another virus to attack the same person.
Flu season has kicked off in the U.S. earlier than it had in more than a decade and is expected to hit its peak earlier as well, according to the CDC.
And the time to get vaccinated hasn’t yet passed, the CDC assured.
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” the agency said. “Flu vaccination is the best way to reduce the risk from flu and its potentially serious complications.”