The difference between a cold and flu
Surprisingly – or should it be unsurprisingly – difference between a cold and flu comes up a lot. In fact, it’s an important question because there are, after all, billions of cases of the common cold around the world each year. In the USA alone, adults average around two to three colds each per year. On top of that, the amount of American adults suffering from the flu averages between 5% and 20% each year – of which some 200,000 people are hospitalised.
But what about us over here in the UAE where it is all warmth and sunshine? Well, despite those relatively warm winters, the UAE doesn’t escape flu season, with Abu Dhabi reporting a 30% spike in seasonal flu cases between December and January 2014/15.
Knowing the difference between a cold and flu is important because they are treated very differently. Many medicines are effectively useless against the common cold, but may provide some relief against the flu, and vice versa.
So to get a better understanding of how to treat a cold and flu, let’s first take a look at some of the common symptoms of both, as well as the key differences between the two:
Catching the common cold
We’ve all felt those familiar niggles of the common cold – a sore throat, runny nose, sniffling and sneezing – but how many of us really know what’s behind all this?
For starters, let’s debunk one of the most common myths associated with the sniffles: temperature has very little to do with it. Getting wet, going out without a jacket, standing in a draft and so on are not going to increase your chances of a catching a cold this winter. Fatigue, allergies, or stress, on the other hand, will increase your risk.
So how then do we catch a cold? Well, there are over 200 strains of cold viruses passing freely among us at any given time, and we usually take them on board by touching something (such as a computer keyboard, door knob, or handrail) which has the germ spores on it from another infected person – and then touching our nose or mouth.
As for why we get it when we do, that’s no exact science. Our immune system either successfully fights off the virus or it doesn’t – which is why anything that weakens our immune system such as fatigue, allergies or stress can increase our chances of catching a cold. Once we have contracted it, we then start to feel the symptoms around two-to-three days later as the virus attaches itself to the lining of our nose and throat.
In an attempt to ward off this foreign virus, our immune systems send out white blood cells to help fight the infection. As our bodies continue to do this, the nose and throat become inflamed and produce mucus – hence the blocked feeling and constant need to reach for the tissues. What’s more, as a substantial amount of its resources are focused on fighting off the virus, our bodies are left feeling tired and drained.
Below are some common symptoms of a cold:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Slight body aches or a mild headache
- Itchy or sore throat
- Low-grade fever
- Cough congestion
- Mild fatigue
Feeling the flu
Of course much of the confusion surrounding colds and flus comes from the fact that there are many similarities between the two, not least of which is the way either is passed on and contracted – by coming into contact with germ droplets spread by an infected person. However, a flu is on the whole a much more complex virus – of which there are many strains – and has the potential to cause us far more serious issues than the common cold.
Essentially, the flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness, usually caused by one of two viruses – influenza A or influenza B. Type A is the most common variety and tends to mutate every few years (which is why you can never build up a permanent immunity to the flu), and therefore is the type we tend to see during flu epidemics. Type B on the other hand is less common, and generally causes milder flu symptoms and results in less frequent mutations.
Flus can in fact be quite dangerous, and they are responsible for over 30,000 deaths each year in the USA, because unlike the common cold, they can also develop into other serious medical conditions such as pneumonia.
As far as symptoms go, for the most part flu symptoms mimic those of a cold – sore throat, blocked nose, cough etc. However, some individual symptoms, in particular muscular aches and fatigue, are often far more severe. What’s more, there are several symptoms which are exclusive to or at least more common with the flu – including exhaustion, more severe headaches, and a high fever.
Of that list, it the high fever which is often the most distinguishing feature of the flu virus, with sufferers commonly running temperatures around 101 and 102 Fahrenheit, sometimes even as high as 106. That is far above what you would expect from the common cold.
Common symptoms of the flu virus:
- High fever
- Sore throat
- Blocked nose
- Hacking cough
- Aching muscles
- Exhaustion, fatigue and weakness
Fending off colds and flu
So now you’ve established what you’re fighting off, what are you going to do about it? When it comes to a cold, to be honest, not a lot. There’s quite a bit of truth in the saying “There’s no cure for the common cold.”
That said, while our bodies will usually see off a cold within a week or two, there are some over-the-counter remedies worth trying. Those containing zinc, for example, may help alleviate some of the symptoms.
The other thing you must do is follow the old tried and true advice of getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and giving your immune system a boost by eating certain foods – such as oily fish which helps to reduce inflammation and vitamin-C rich fruits which may help reduce the duration of your cold.
The flu on the other hand needs a slightly different approach. For nasal and sinus congestion, try an over-the-counter decongestant or antihistamine, which should reduce the swelling of the nasal passages. To reduce fever try ibuprofen or naproxen, while sore throat and cough symptoms can be relieved by standard over-the-counter flu medications.
Just like with those colds (though even more so when it comes to the flu) plenty of rest and regular fluids are key, while foods such as garlic, with its direct anti-viral qualities, and berries, which are a great antioxidant, may help speed up the process of getting you back on your feet.
Finally, although most colds and flus can be self-treated, should fever, headaches or coughing persist for over two weeks; or if you experience vomiting, shortness of breath or chest pain, contact your doctor so that he or she can advise on a more appropriate course of treatment.
So now that we have that cleared up, I will leave you with a few words on prevention. Eat well (Paleo, Paleo, and Paleo), drink lots of water, get proper sleep, exercise, practise good hygiene by washing your hands regularly, and get your daily dose of vitamin D (4,000-5,000 IU).
In general, the best defence against a cold or flu is to avoid it, and while there is only so much you can do in this crowded world of ours where we are exposed to these germs regularly (especially you frequent flyers locked in those airplanes with that recycled air), keeping a fit and healthy body will definitely give you an edge against these often nasty viruses, some of which, unfortunately, can cause us great discomfort or even put us at risk for more serious conditions.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.