With so many shared symptoms, it is important to know the difference between a cold and the flu.
What is a Cold?
The common cold is usually caused by the rhinovirus. Some colds are caused by the coronaviruses and the respiratory syncytial virus. Generally, symptoms involve the upper respiratory tract, and most cases are mild, but the cold is “a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from school and work”. Colds are transmitted by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth or nose. They can also be caused by encountering secretions from a sneeze. When the virus attaches to the nose or throat lining, the immune system uses white blood cells to attack the virus. This leads to inflammation and mucus. Because the immune system uses so much energy to fight the germs, fatigue and discomfort are a result. People are more likely to catch colds if they have stress, if they are overtired, or if they have allergies (with throat and nose symptoms). Common cold symptoms include watery eyes, mucus drainage, sneezing, sore throat, and nasal congestion. Some people may experience muscle aches or high fever, but that would mean it is more likely that the viral culprit is influenza.1
What is the Flu?
Influenza, also known as the flu, is a virus that is very contagious. There are type A and type B influenza viruses, and they are more likely to appear in the early spring and winter. Like a cold, the flu is a one of the “viral infections of the respiratory tract”. The flu is more serious than a cold. Coughing, chest discomfort, and headaches can happen with both the flu and a cold, but while the congestion, sneezing, and sore throat are more cold-related, fatigue, weakness, aches, and a fever are more likely caused by the flu. Flu symptoms come on quickly, and the illness may lead to more serious complications, such as pneumonia. Some people may have what is called “stomach flu”, but that is not an accurate diagnosis, nor is it caused by influenza. Stomach “flu” is really gastroenteritis (inflammation of the intestines and stomach). Viruses can cause this, and the symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and nausea.2
Treatments and Prevention of a Cold and the Flu
Hand washing is very important to prevent the cold and flu. These diseases are easily spread when large groups of people are close together, such as in schools, daycare, college dorms, offices, nursing homes, and in the military. People should take care not to share drinks or utensils, and, besides washing hands, they should not touch their faces.3 Some patients may be prescribed antiviral medications. Symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter medications (e.g., decongestant, lozenges, cough medicine, pain reliever), but there are many home remedies that could relieve discomfort. Patients should rest, drink clear fluids, and use a “warm blanket to calm chills”. They may also use a room humidifier and gargle warm salt water. Antibiotics are only for bacterial infections, so they are ineffective against viruses. They may only become necessary if patients develop a secondary infection.4 Some people may wish to get flu vaccines, to prevent some types of flu, or take medications such as Tamiflu.5 There are also herbal and natural treatments such as Airborne, Zicam, vitamin C, echinacea, and elderberry that people can try. Research is mixed on the effectiveness of some of these options.6