Is It the Flu or Just the Common Cold?
by Dr. Richard A. DiCenso
What is the Difference Between A Cold and the Flu?
Before addressing what is commonly accepted as scientifically factual regarding the cold vs. flu dilemma, perhaps it may be helpful to examine the common myths surrounding the common cold.
Common Cold Myths
Common cold myths are about as widespread as the common cold itself. One of the most common cold myths involves the so-called weather cause. There is no evidence that you can get a cold from exposure to cold weather or from getting chilled or overheated.
Although colds are not related to the weather, people are more likely to get colds during the colder months. There are couple of different reasons for thinking this. During colder weather, people are inside more and in closer contact with people who might be contagious. Also, cold weather may make the inside lining of your nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.
Another common cold myth is that antibiotics can be used to treat the common cold. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but the common cold is caused by a virus. Therefore, antibiotics will have no effect on the organisms that cause the common cold.
Antibiotics can be used to treat complications of the common cold, such as bronchitis, sinusitis, or ear infections, but these complications are rare.
Overuse of antibiotics has become a very serious problem, leading to a resistance in disease, causing bacteria that may render antibiotics ineffective for certain conditions. In addition, you should not use antibiotics “just in case,” because they will not prevent bacterial infections.
With such a common disease, there are bound to be many more common cold myths related to the causes, prevention, and treatment for the common cold. Other cold myths are related to the use of vitamin C, Echinacea, or antibiotics to prevent colds.
Common Cold Myths: Steam
Although inhaling steam may temporarily relieve symptoms of congestion, health experts have found that this approach is not an effective common cold treatment.
Common Cold Myths: Echinacea
Echinacea is a dietary herbal supplement that some people use to treat their colds. Researchers, however, have found that while the herb may help treat your colds if taken in the early stages, it will not help prevent them.
One large research study found that echinacea is not effective at all in treating children ages 2 to 11.
Common Cold Myths: Vitamin C
Many people are convinced that when it comes to the common cold, vitamin C in large quantities will prevent colds or relieve cold symptoms. To test this common cold myth, several large-scale, controlled studies involving children and adults were conducted. The vitamin may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms, but there is no clear evidence of this.
Taking vitamin C over long periods of time in large amounts may be harmful. Too much vitamin C can cause severe diarrhea, a particular danger for elderly people and small children.
How Do Your Know Whether You Have Cold Symptoms or The Flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. When you wake up sneezing, coughing, and have that achy, feverish, can’t move a muscle feeling, how do you know whether you have cold symptoms or the flu?
It’s important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms.
- The flu is more serious than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense.
- People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
- Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
- A cold is a milder respiratory illness compared to the flu.
- While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to weeks.
- The flu can also result in serious health problems such as pneumonia and hospitalizations.
Many patients have their own, nonscientific common cold remedies. As long as it’s not harmful, it is probably okay to try it. But be skeptical of something that hasn’t been clinically proven in a well-designed, placebo-controlled study.
What Are Common Cold Symptoms?
- Cold symptoms usually begin with a sore throat, which usually goes away after a day or two.
- Nasal symptoms, runny nose, and congestion follow, along with a cough by the fourth and fifth days.
- Fever is uncommon in adults, but a slight fever is possible.
- Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold.
- With cold symptoms, the nose teems with watery nasal secretions for the first few days. Later, these become thicker and darker. Dark mucus is natural and does not usually mean you have developed a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection.
Unfortunately, several hundred different viruses may cause your cold symptoms, so we often have to rely on characteristics of symptoms to tell the difference between the flu and the common cold.
How Long Do Cold Symptoms Last?
Cold symptoms usually last for about a week. During the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are contagious. This means you can pass the cold to others, so stay home and get some much-needed rest.
If cold symptoms do not seem to be improving after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics.
Sometimes you may mistake cold symptoms for allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection. If cold symptoms begin quickly and are improving after a week, then it is usually a cold, not allergy. If your cold symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, check with your doctor to see if you have developed an allergy or sinusitis.
What Are Common Flu Symptoms?
Flu symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly.
- Symptoms of flu include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough.
- Swine flu in particular is also associated with vomiting and diarrhea.
- Most flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it’s not uncommon to feel run down for a week or more.
- Another common sign of pneumonia is fever that comes back after having been gone for a day or two.
- A common complication of the flu is pneumonia, particularly in the young, elderly, or people with lung or heart problems. If you notice shortness of breath, let your doctor know.
Just like cold viruses, flu viruses enter your body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, or mouth. Every time you touch your hand to one of these areas, you could be infecting yourself with a virus, which makes it very important to keep hands germ-free with frequent washing to prevent both flu and cold symptoms.
So, Is It Flu or Cold Symptoms?
With the early onset of symptoms in each so closely resembling each other how do you know if you have flu or cold symptoms? Usually, the time of year will give you some sense of what you’re dealing with. The standard flu season runs from fall to spring of the next year.
Also, many experts say you can get a sense of what you’re dealing with by taking your temperature. Although Flu symptoms often mimic cold symptoms with nasal congestion, cough, aches, and malaise, a common cold rarely has symptoms of fever above 101 degrees. With flu symptoms, you will probably have a fever and initially with the flu virus and you will feel miserable. Body and muscle aches are also more common with the flu.
When Do I Call The Doctor With Flu or Cold Symptoms?
If you already have flu or cold symptoms, it’s important to call your doctor if you also have any of the following severe symptoms:
- Persistent fever: This can be a sign of another bacterial infection that should be treated.
- Painful swallowing: Although a sore throat from a cold or flu can cause mild discomfort, severe pain could mean strep throat, which requires treatment by a doctor.
- Persistent coughing: When a cough doesn’t go away after two or three weeks, it could be bronchitis, which may need an antibiotic. Postnasal drip or sinusitis can also result in a persistent cough. In addition, asthma is another cause of persistent coughing.
- Persistent congestion and headaches: When colds and allergies cause congestion and blockage of sinus passages, they can lead to a sinus infection (sinusitis). If you have pain around the eyes and face with thick nasal discharge after a week, you may have a bacterial infection and possibly need an antibiotic. Most sinus infections, however, do not need an antibiotic.
In some cases, you may need to get emergency medical attention right away. In adults, signs of a crisis include:
- Severe chest pain
- Severe headache
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent vomiting
In children, additional signs of an emergency are:
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Lethargy and failure to interact normally
- Extreme irritability or distress
- Symptoms that were improving and then suddenly worsen
- Fever with a rash
An Ounce of Prevention
Seasonal flu activity in the United States generally peaks between late December and early March. Can I prevent flu or cold symptoms?
Conventional wisdom dictates that the most important prevention measure for preventing colds and flu is frequent hand washing. Hand washing by rubbing the hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds helps to slough germs off the skin.
How Do You Catch a Cold?
The most common way cold viruses are spread is not from being around coughing or sneezing, or walking barefoot in the rain, but rather from hand-to-hand contact. For instance, someone with a cold blows their nose then shakes your hand or touches surfaces that you also touch. Cold viruses can live on pens, computer keyboards, coffee mugs, and other objects for hours, so it’s easy to come into contact with such viruses during daily life.
However, the key to remember is that just being exposed to a cold virus does not have to mean that you’ll catch a cold. If your immune system is operating at its peak, it should actually be quite easy for you to fend off the virus without ever getting sick. On the other hand, if your immune system is impaired, it’s akin to having an open-door policy for viruses—they’ll easily take hold in your body. So the simple and short answer is, you catch a cold due to a poorly functioning immune system. There are many causes of a weakened immune system, but the more common factors are:
Easy Strategies For Boosting Immunity
In a word, the simplest strategy for preventing the onslaught of symptoms associated with exposure to a potential common cold purveyor is to eat right, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and exercise to maintain a strong immune system and avoid colds.
The Have’s And Have Not’s
We’ve all heard of people who never seem to get sick while everyone else comes down with the cold or the flu. How do they do it? Follow these simple tips to boost your immunity and reduce your risk of getting sick.
Health experts recommend washing your hands — with soap and warm water for about 20 seconds or longer — periodically throughout the day. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available. Getting a yearly flu shot, which exposes your body to dead flu viruses so it builds immunity against them, is one of the best things you can do to avoid influenza each year.
Sleep, Eat and Drink to Prevent Colds
“The most important things in terms of improving immunity are rest and good sleep. While individual needs vary, most experts recommend at least seven hours a night. A healthy diet is also important to good immunity. the best foods for supporting immunity come from Mother Nature.
For immune system health, Research shows that a whole foods approach is best, which includes a diet packed with whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. That’s because, for normal people without severe vitamin deficiencies, taking extra vitamins, supplements or herbs has never been shown to lower the risk of developing an infection.
Foods like oranges, kiwi, pineapple, and colorful peppers are packed with vitamin C, which helps your body produce infection-fighting antibodies.
Most fast food, on the other hand, offers little nutritional boost. A lack of key nutrients could mean the difference between getting and avoiding a cold. If a little vitamin C is good, then a lot is better, right? Not necessarily. With the exception of people who are subject to extreme cold or extreme physical activity, large doses of vitamin C do not appear to lower risk for the common cold or other illnesses.
Protect Your Skin and Stay Hydrated
Vitamin A helps keep skin and mucous membranes in the nose and mouth healthy, so they can act as a protective barrier against bacteria and viruses. Sources of Vitamin A include orange, red, yellow, and dark green fruits and vegetables as well as liver.
Other nutrients that support immunity include vitamin E, found in whole grains; selenium, found in many plant and animal foods (levels vary depending on selenium levels in the soil); and zinc, contained in foods ranging from whole wheat bread to lean meats, milk, and yogurt.
Staying hydrated is also critical for maximizing immunity. Most people need half an ounce of non-caffeinated fluids for each pound of body weight daily to maintain proper hydration, most, if not all, of which comes from the foods we eat. This keeps mucous membranes moist, which lowers the chance of a cold or flu taking hold in your nose or lungs. Avoid sodas and other heavily sweetened drinks; the added sugar has little nutritional value.
Avoid Stress to Avoid Colds
Serious stresses do influence the immune system. Since stress is unavoidable for most of us it is important that people adopt coping methods or, when appropriate, find ways to exit stressful situations.
Moderate exercise (30 or more minutes a day, according to the American Heart Association) bolsters immunity and reduces stress, while hobbies and spending time with friends can improve well-being and ease worries.
To manage stress, try viewing situations from a different point of view or taking time to enjoy beautiful scenery or art. Think of it as putting on a different pair of glasses and visualizing the interpretation of your perceived threat as an opportunity to encourage your innate ability to thrive, survive and prosper as you successfully negotiate the superstitious thinking surrounding an event, circumstance or encounter that you feel threatened by.
In short, actively encourage lifestyle changes. What the experts and even the drug companies are saying is “Make lifestyle changes.” What these changes are and how to make them is left up to you, but changing your diet, behaviors, activities and attitude are all definitely a part of it.
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- Stopping A Cold In Its Tracks