When area schools dismissed for the holiday break on Dec. 21, a stomach and intestinal virus was making the rounds. When they come back — Pratt students started Wednesday, Skyline returns on Jan. 7 — sniffles, sneezes and body aches may come along with them.

It doesn't matter much whether the symptoms belong to the common cold or the flu; they're both caused by viruses, are not helped by antibiotics, and the best treatment focuses on the symptoms and not the disease itself.

Flu season may be starting early, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. A Weekly Influenza Summary for the week ending Dec. 22 showed Kansas and surrounding states as being affected by regional outbreaks and more than half the country having widespread reports of flu.

Debbie McGraw, a registered nurse and director of the Pratt County Health Department, said the last couple of weeks have been "pretty quiet," which is what she expects during the time schools are on break. Once everybody is back in session, she will probably e-mail school nurses to monitor activity.

She tries to educate people to stay home if they have a fever of 100 degrees or greater and stay home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours, to cover their cough and practice good hand hygiene. Her own health care provider recommended Airborne, a nutritional supplement, Micinex for coughs and Chloraseptic to numb a sore throat.

Flu vaccine would still be effective, as outbreaks usually peak in January and February. The Health Department administered 700 doses it ordered initially, and additional doses obtained from other counties. They are out of vaccine and will not receive more from suppliers.

Dillons has enough vaccine for at least 50 shots on hand, according to pharmacy manager Scott Nicholson. They can administer the vaccine to anyone age 6 and over.

Getting a flu vaccination is no guarantee against illness — people could still get sick from other viruses.

Antibiotics won't help, and may do more harm than good. Antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing public health threats, according to the CDC.

If antibiotics are used too often for things they can't treat — like colds or other viral infections — they can stop working effectively against bacteria when really needed.

Antiviral drugs, available only by prescription, can be used to treat cold and flu, especially for people who have chronic diseases, adults over 65, children under age 2 and pregnant women.

The pills, liquid or inhaled powder can lessen the symptoms and shorten the time a person is sick by one or two days, and for people with risk conditions, can mean the difference between a relatively mild illness and a hospital stay.

Otherwise-healthy people with a cold or flu don't need to be treated with antiviral drugs, according to the CDC.

Most experts believe that flu is spread by droplets made when people cough, sneeze or talk, and which land in the noses and mouths of people nearby. Less often, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has a flu virus on it and touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their noses nose.

A healthy person exposed to the flu can be contagious up to a day before he or she becomes sick and five to seven days afterward.

McGraw said basketball games and wrestling matches, where there are lots of people in close contact, are especially good places for cold and flu viruses to travel. Anyone who has risk factors might want to avoid them; otherwise, do what you can to minimize contact and practice good hygiene.

Practice good health habits
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Cover your mouth and nose, with a tissue when available, or sneeze and cough into your elbow, not your hands.
• Clean your hands. If soap and water is not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
• Practice other good habits: get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention