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Is It a Cold or the Flu?

HCA Virginia Physicians February 16, 2017

With so many people affected by the common cold and the flu, it may seem impossible to avoid catching one, or both. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses that are caused by different viruses. Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense. Arm yourself with the following information about the common cold and the flu—and don't be the next victim.

Symptoms of the Flu Versus a Cold

Influenza travels around the globe in yearly winter epidemics of varying magnitude. Major epidemics occur every 10-15 years and may kill upwards of 40,000 people or more in the United States. Most of the deaths occur in the elderly and those weakened by chronic illnesses, such as heart and respiratory diseases. The symptoms of the flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness).

Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. The common cold is characterized by nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, and perhaps a sore throat, headache, and malaise (not feeling well). A fever is unusual. Symptoms typically resolve on their own within 1-2 weeks and generally do not result in serious health problems.


Facts About the Flu

The flu is in an infection of the upper respiratory tract. It is caused by the influenza virus and is spread through the air. The flu is highly contagious. When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, tiny droplets full of flu particles are expelled. Because these droplets are small, they are suspended in the air long enough for another person to inhale them.

During each flu season, one or more specific types of the influenza virus are responsible for causing the flu. Many times, people may have one of many viruses that cause flu-like symptoms, but not actually be infected with the influenza virus. The flu and its symptoms are more severe, and in most cases more numerous, than those of the common cold. The flu can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia. In addition, it can be life-threatening for the elderly, people with lung disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Preventing the Flu

A flu shot can lower your chance of getting the flu. You should get vaccinated between September and January (or later since the flu season can last much longer). The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over six months of age get vaccinated against the flu each year. Anyone who wants to reduce his or her risk of getting the flu should consider the vaccine.

Hand washing also can prevent the flu, or any flu-like illness. Even if someone in your home has the flu, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your hands. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizers are effective.

Treating the Flu

Most importantly, when you have the flu, you need rest and plenty of fluids. For most healthy people with the flu treatment with antiviral medications is not necessary. People who have chronic health conditions, are severely ill, or have suppressed immune systems are good candidates for antiviral medications. Antiviral medications may help relieve symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. They must be taken within 72 hours of the first symptoms, though some kinds of seasonal influenza viruses are resistant to antiviral medications.


Facts About the Common Cold

A cold is a minor infection of the throat and nose. More than 200 different viruses are known to cause symptoms of a cold — although rhinoviruses and coronaviruses cause the majority of them. Cold symptoms usually last about 1-2 weeks. Rarely, a cold can turn into a lower respiratory infection in young children.

Preventing a Cold

Colds are extremely contagious. A cold is transmitted by droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus. These droplets become airborne when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks. You contaminate yourself by inhaling these droplets or touching a surface that the viruses have landed on and then touching your eyes or nose. To prevent getting or spreading a cold, take these simple precautions:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Do not touch your nose, eyes, or mouth, and cover them when you cough or sneeze. This will help you avoid infecting yourself with germs you may have picked up, and infecting others.

Treating a Cold

Antibiotics will not cure a cold. In fact, nothing can cure a cold except time. Certain self-care measures may help you reduce your discomfort. These include:

  • Take certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications. For example, acetaminophen helps to relieve aches and fever, while decongestants and antihistamines may combat congestion. Use caution, though, when giving these medications to children.
  • Drink plenty of fluids every day. This will help keep you hydrated.
  • Avoid alcohol as it promotes dehydration.
  • Avoid smoke. It irritates an already sore throat and intensifies a cough.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a humidifier — an electric device that puts moisture into the air.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that OTC cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants or children less than 2 years old and supports not using them in children less than 4 years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including rapid heart rates, convulsions, decreased levels of consciousness, and death. OTC cough and cold products include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and cough suppressants. The FDA is still reviewing safety data concerning these products in children aged 2-11 years. There also have been serious side effects reported in this age group.

When to Call the Doctor

You usually do not need to call a doctor if you have signs of the flu or a cold. However, you should contact your doctor if you are at high risk for complications or if you experience any of the following difficulties:

  • Your symptoms get worse
  • Your symptoms longer than two weeks
  • Shortness of breath
  • New or worsening lightheadedness
  • Bluish coloring of the lips
  • Chest pain or pressure when breathing
  • After you feel better, you develop signs of a more serious problem. These symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, high fever, shaking chills, chest pain, and coughing with a thick mucus.

Dr. Cecily Montgomery is a family physician with Primary Health Group - Chippenham. If you have any questions about cold, flu, or other respiratory ailments, please call her office at (804) 560-0490. You can also book an appointment online with her via the link below. She is currently welcoming new patients and referrals.

Book An Appointment Online with Dr. Cecily Montgomery >>

Resources:
US Department of Health and Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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