The confusion between the common cold and flu (seasonal influenza) is understandable as both present in a very similar manner, arise suddenly and resolve on its own within a few days. However, there are differences between these viral infections and with the concern about new and possibly more deadly strains of the flu, it is important to understand when you have a common cold and when you have the flu. The latter can also have more serious outcomes for people with a weakened immune system, the elderly and pregnant women.
What is the flu?
The term ‘flu’ is an abbreviated form of the word influenza, the type of virus that causes the seasonal flu which we are all familiar with during certain times of the year. It is one of the most common viral infections that affects humans although different strains can also infect other mammals. The flu is also very contagious and contrary to popular belief it is not as ‘simple’ as we tend to think. Symptoms last between two to five days.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), the seasonal flu claims as many as 20,000 American lives every year. However, this figure is relatively small as compared to the number of people who develop the flu every year. Therefore the flu is not considered among the deadliest diseases but is nevertheless a significant health risk for certain groups of people.
What is the cold?
The common cold is also a viral infection but it is caused by a type of virus known as the rhinovirus. Sometimes even other non-influenza viruses that cause an upper respiratory tract infection may be referred to as a common cold. There are several hundred different viruses that can cause the common cold. Unlike the flu, there is no seasonal predilection for the common cold and a person can catch it at any time of the year although winter is when it is more often seen.
The common cold causes an upper respiratory tract infection. The symptoms can last for as long as one week. It is often considered to be less serious because unlike the flu, it is less likely to lead to complications like pneumonia. Nevertheless, a common cold should be managed appropriately as it is not unusual for secondary bacterial infections of the respiratory tract to follow without proper care.
How often does a person get the cold or flu?
Although the flu season appears to affect large portions of the population every year, it only affects between 5% and 20% people annually in the United States. The flu usually peaks in January and February in the US. The frequency of the common cold is not as clearly known but younger children may get the cold 3 to 8 times per year, with a cold every month in winter, while adults get the cold about 2 to 4 times a year.
However, it is important to note that there may be contributing factors such as a cold climate, close contact with people with the cold, poor nutrition, psychological stress, cigarette smoking and so on. Many of these factors weaken the immune system. Advancing age and diseases that compromise immune activity are other contributing factors. Therefore some people may get the common cold more often than others.
What are the symptoms of the cold versus the flu?
The symptoms of the common cold and flu are very similar but there are some differences that distinguishes a cold from a flu.
A fever is not always present with the common cold but if it does occur it is usually mild. With the flu on the other hand, a fever is usually present and it is typically high (100-102F and sometimes even higher).
A headache occasionally does occur with the cold while it is common with the flu.
Aches and Pains
Aches and pains with a common cold are usually slight while with the flu it is usually severe.
Fatigue and Weakness
Sometimes is present with a cold but is mild and short-lived. With the flu it is often severe and can last for several weeks.
Nasal congestion and sneezing is common and usually severe. With the flu, nasal congestion and sneezing is not always present.
A sore throat is common with the cold and can be severe but it is not always present with the flu.
Chest Pain and Coughing
Chest pain is mild to moderate a shallow cough may be present. With the flu the chest discomfort is usually present and the cough can be severe especially if complications like pneumonia arise.
Treatment and Prevention
How is a cold or flu treated?
There is no cure for the common cold or flu. Antivirals are not a cure and should not be used unless prescribed by a doctor. These drugs may at most reduce the severity of the condition and prevent complications. Bed rest, balanced nutrition and plenty of fluids are the supportive measures needed for a rapid recovery.
Although treatment is usually not necessary for the common cold or flu, symptomatic treatment may be prescribed for people who are are experiencing severe symptoms. This includes acetaminophen, nasal decongestants and sometimes antihistamines. Aspirin use in children should be avoided.
How can a cold or flu be prevented?
- Vaccines are available for the flu but not for the cold. The flu vaccine is not a foolproof preventative measure due to the rapid change in flu strains but it is advisable for people who are in a high risk group of complications from the flu. There is no cold vaccine as it is caused by several hundred viruses and it is not associated with serious complications.
- Both the cold and flu are spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Reducing contact with infected people is therefore one way of preventing the cold but this is not always possible. These droplets can also be transmitted through inanimate objects like door handles. Regular washing of the hands is another significant way of reducing the chance of contracting a cold or flu.