The flu is highly contagious, but rarely life-threatening.
The common cold and flu (influenza) are both infections of the upper respiratory system. While both have many of the same symptoms, a cold is usually of shorter duration and is not considered a serious medical condition.
Flu symptoms last longer and typically include a fever. If symptoms of the flu progress, they may lead to other serious illnesses requiring hospitalization, particularly for children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
Both the cold and flu are highly contagious. The virus can be passed through food, beverages and contaminated objects such as door knobs or shopping carts. If a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches his/her nose, mouth or eyes, the infection is then spread through the mucous membranes. The cold and flu are also considered to be airborne infections meaning they can infect someone who inhales after a cough or sneeze in their vicinity.
Cold and Flu Symptoms
Symptoms of the cold and flu can be very similar, often making it hard for doctors to diagnose in the early stage.
Typical symptoms for cold and flu:
- Mild cough
- Sore throat
- Stuffy nose
- Runny nose
Flu: In addition to having a sudden onset, the flu can be distinguished from a cold if the patient also has the following symptoms:
- Low to high grade fever
- Body aches
- Cough – Often felt deep in the chest.
- Chest discomfort – Moderate to severe
Cold and Flu Causes
How colds and the flu enter your body
COLD: A cold is typically caused by the rhinovirus. When the rhinovirus is passed through mucous secretions in the eyes, nose or mouth, it sticks to the lining of the nose and begins to reproduce. The irritation of the virus combined with the response of the body’s immune system causes a runny and/or stuffy nose. A virus that settles into the lining of the lungs produces a cough.
FLU: The flu is caused by one of three strains, Influenza A, B or C. Influenza C is the most common, less serious form. Influenzas A and B can be very serious. These are the strains seen in flu “outbreaks” each season. Like the cold, the flu is also passed through mucous secretions.
Cold and Flu Treatment
The viruses go away on their own, but the symptoms can be treated
COLD: For a cold there is often no medical intervention needed. With rest, an increase in fluids and time, the virus goes away on its own.
People often seek medication to treat the uncomfortable symptoms of a cold. Many of these can be found over-the-counter. Read all labels carefully or consult a physician before dosing, particularly with children
- Decongestants – For stuffy nose
- Antihistamines – For runny nose
Manufacturers who combine decongestants and antihistamines:
- Claritin – D
- Sudafed Plus
Cough syrup, nasal spray and pain relievers are also used as needed to treat a cold.
Flu: Symptoms of the flu can be treated the same way as a cold; however, if true influenza is diagnosed, doctors may prescribe an antiviral drug to help the flu run its course a little quicker.
Often the flu virus causes other serious illnesses known as flu-related complications. These include bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections. Children, elderly and those with compromised immune systems are often hospitalized due to these complications.
There are many home remedies used to treat the symptoms of the cold/flu.
- Increase Vitamin C – Either with supplements or by eating foods high in this immune-boosting vitamin, including citrus fruits.
- Ginger tea – Hot. Mixed with honey
- Warm honey and lemon to soothe a sore throat
- Saline water – Gargled to soothe a sore throat
- A drop of turmeric, eucalyptus oil or apple cider vinegar added to hot water then used as a steam vapor
Cold and Flu Prevention
Simple steps to avoid getting a cold or the flu
The number one prevention of the cold and flu virus is to practice good hygiene habits in the form of frequent hand washing. Wash with warm water and soup for at least 20 full seconds.
Use hand sanitizer when there is no immediate access to water.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Build up your immune system by eating a healthy diet, exercising and taking a multi-vitamin
Cold and Flu Resources
More information about colds and the flu
Center for Disease Control – FluView (weekly) – http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/