The difference between influenza and the common cold

Both influenza and the common cold are viral respiratory infections (they affect the nose, throat, and lungs). These viruses are spread from person to person through droplets that are sneezed out or coughed up by an infected person. In some cases, the viruses can be spread when a person touches an infected surface (e.g., doorknobs, countertops, telephones) and then touches his or her nose, mouth, or eyes. As such, these illnesses are most easily spread in crowded conditions such as schools.

Influenza is commonly referred to as "the flu." Each year, millions of Canadians come down with influenza. Although most people recover fully, it results in about 12,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada annually. Deaths due to the flu are found mostly among high-risk populations, such as those with other medical conditions (such as diabetes or cancer) or weakened immune systems, seniors, or very young children. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. Type A influenza causes the most serious problems in humans.

There are over 200 different known cold viruses, but most colds (30% to 40%) are caused by rhinoviruses. In Canada, the peak times for colds are at the start of school in the fall, in mid-winter, and again in early spring. Adults catch approximately 2 to 4 colds a year, and children catch even more.

Many people confuse the flu with a bad cold. The following table highlights the differences between influenza and the common cold:

Symptom Flu Cold
Fever Usually present, high (102°F to 104°F or 39°C to 40°C); lasts 3 to 4 days Rare
Headache Usually (can be severe) Rare
Aches and pains Usually  and often severe Sometimes; slight
Fatigue and weakness Usually; can last 14 to 21 days or longer Sometimes; mild
Extreme exhaustion Usually Uncommon
Stuffy nose Common Common
Sneezing Sometimes Common
Sore throat Common Common
Chest discomfort, cough Usually; can be severe Sometimes; mild to moderate, hacking cough
Complications Can lead to pneumonia or respiratory failure; can worsen a current chronic condition; can be life-threatening Can lead to sinus congestion or earache

People infected with an influenza or cold virus become contagious 1 to 2 days before symptoms develop. Adults remain infectious (can spread the virus to others) for about 6 days, and children remain infectious for up to 10 days.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2017. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Flu-and-Cold

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Tips on prevention

The most effective way to decrease complications and reduce the impact of the flu is to get a preventative vaccine shot. The North American vaccine is developed each year to work against different strains of influenza virus, based on trends seen in the Southern Hemisphere. The best time for vaccination is early October to mid-November.

Certain people are at an increased risk of complications from the flu and should receive the vaccine. You are at high risk and should be vaccinated if you:

  • are aged 65 years or older
  • live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • have a lung disease (e.g., asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD))
  • have a heart condition (e.g., angina, congestive heart failure)
  • have diabetes or another metabolic disease
  • have a kidney problem
  • have a blood disorder (e.g., anemia)
  • have a neurologic or neurodevelopment condition
  • have cancer or a weakened immune system (e.g., are taking steroid medications, or have HIV)
  • are aged 6 months to 59 months
  • are aged 6 months to 18 years and are taking long-term ASA therapy
  • have been diagnosed as suffering from morbid obesity (BMI of 40 or higher)
  • are a member of a First Nations
  • are pregnant

Anyone who can infect those at high risk (including health care workers) should also receive the vaccine. Since infants less than 6 months cannot get the flu shot but are at high risk of complications, household contacts of these infants should get the flu vaccine, as should households who are expecting a newborn during the influenza season. People who provide essential community services, such as first responders and people directly involved in culling operations with avian influenza-infected poultry, should receive the vaccine as well.

If you are not part of a high-risk group but just want to avoid the flu, you can also get vaccinated.

There are different flu vaccines available and, depending on your specific circumstance (i.e. age, pregnancy, allergies), some may not be recommended for you. Ask a health care professional for more details.

Simple frequent handwashing is also very effective at preventing both flus and colds. As well, teach your family to cough or sneeze into their sleeves, and lead by example!

Certain medications (e.g., zanamivir, oseltamivir) are also used in some cases to prevent the flu. Consult your doctor or pharmacist to determine whether you need a preventative medication, and which one is the right one for you.

There are many myths about what predisposes a person to catch a cold and what makes one person catch more colds than another. Factors that may increase the risk of catching a cold include fatigue, emotional stress, and smoking.

Research studies do not show that echinacea helps to prevent colds. Vitamin C also does not appear to protect people from catching colds.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2017. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Flu-and-Cold

When you should contact your doctor

The main complications of the flu and the common cold are bacterial infections of the sinuses (sinusitis) or lungs (pneumonia). Symptoms of these complications include fever, chills, and yellow, green, or brown sputum or nasal discharge. Children may also develop ear infections (acute otitis media).

You should consult your doctor or health care professional if you or your child:

  • belong to a high-risk group (e.g., people with other medical conditions such as asthma or COPD or weakened immune systems, the elderly, very young children)
  • have severe throat pain or difficulty with swallowing
  • have nasal congestion that lasts more than 7 days, if the discharge is green or yellow, or if there is severe facial pain or headache
  • have a cough that lasts more than 3 weeks or invlolves vomiting
  • have a fever (higher than 38.5°C) that lasts more than 3 days
  • have a high fever (higher than 40.5°C)
  • have difficulty breathing or chest pains, or make abnormal sounds while breathing
  • are dehydrated (in infants, signs include decreased urination, crying without tears)
  • have severe or persistent vomiting
  • have severe headache, neck pain or stiffness, or light sensitivity
  • have behavioural changes, including sudden lethargy, confusion, or irritability
  • have a skin rash
  • have symptoms of croup (e.g. barking, seal-like cough) or ear infection

There are a variety of prescription and non-prescription medications that are useful for relieving symptoms and for controlling pain. Consult your pharmacist or health care professional to determine which medication is the right one for you. Antibiotics are not effective for the flu or a cold. Antiviral medications may be helpful in reducing the duration of your flu, but they should be taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms.

Echinacea and zinc have been studied for treatment of the common cold. Evidence for their effectiveness is debatable.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2017. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Flu-and-Cold

Tips on recovery

Knowing how viruses spread, it is understandable that the best way to prevent catching or spreading the flu or a cold is good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Use a tissue if you are sneezing or coughing, and then discard the used tissue immediately.
  • Clean hard surfaces with a disinfectant.

Since colds and flus are caused by viruses, antibiotics will not help.

There are also lifestyle changes that can help you recover quickly from the flu or a cold:

  • Drink plenty of fluids (6 to 8 glasses per day). Try drinking hot fluids to help with nasal and chest congestion.
  • Use a humidifier to help ease coughing.
  • Get enough rest. Fatigue can increase the duration of symptoms. Staying in bed will also avoid spreading the infection to others.
  • Use saline drops or spray to loosen nasal congestion.
  • Use non-medicated hard lozenges or candy to soothe a sore throat or cough.
  • Gargle with salt water to relieve a sore throat.
  • Stop or reduce smoking. People who smoke tend to get colds more often. Their colds also last longer and they cough more frequently.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2017. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Flu-and-Cold