The common cold, also known as an upper respiratory infection (URI), can be caused by more than 200 viruses. These viruses attack and multiply in the cells that line the nose and throat.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death
Colds and flu are often mistaken for each other because they have similar symptoms and treatments. Please see below to learn more about cold and flu symptoms, treatment, and transmission
- Colds. Contrary to popular belief, colds are not spread primarily through coughing or sneezing. Colds are more commonly spread hand-to-hand. If you shake, touch, or hold the hand of an infected person (who may not have apparent symptoms) and then touch your eyes or nose, you are likely to infect yourself with the virus. In addition, you can "catch" a cold if you touch your eyes or nose after touching a hard, nonporous surface (such as a telephone or doorknob) shortly after an infected person touched it.
- Flu. Flu viruses spread in respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. They usually spread from person-to-person, although people sometimes become infected by touching a surface with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Most healthy adults may infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. That means that you can pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
Symptoms of flu include:
- Fever (usually high)
- Extreme tiredness
- Dry cough
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle aches
- Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The aches and pains that we usually call a cold are really signs that the body is fighting the infection. Symptoms usually last about a week, although they can last as long as two weeks.
Signs and symptoms of a cold can include:
- Scratchy or sore throat
- Clear nasal discharge
- Tenderness around the eyes
- Stuffy nose
- Tearing (watery) eyes
- Full feeling in the ears
- Cough, dry or with clear or white mucus
- General "tired" feeling
Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. Children and adolescents may get sinus problems and ear infections.
A cold can lead to a more serious secondary bacterial infection. If your cold doesn't clear up after one week to ten days, or you have any of the following symptoms, see your health care provider without delay.
- Discolored or bloody mucus from nasal passages
- Pain or tenderness around eyes
- Painful swelling of the neck glands
- Cough with production of discolored mucus
- Painful breathing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
- Severe headache
- Fever greater than 100.5 for longer than two days
- White patches on the back of the throat or tonsils
- An extremely red throat
- Chronic, unusual fatigue
Antibiotics, like penicillin, will not kill cold and flu viruses. Over-the-counter medications may relieve symptoms. If you develop cold/flu symptoms it is advisable to:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink lots of liquids.
- Avoid using alcohol and tobacco.
- Take medications to relieve the symptoms.
Americans spend more than $550 million each year on cold remedies, but much of this money is wasted. Cold and flu remedies that claim to relieve many symptoms simultaneously are often not the most effective remedies and may not be worth the cost. It may be best to choose a single-action remedy. These include:
- Tylenol or Advil/Motrin - to relieve fever, muscle aches, and pain.
- Decongestant (Sudafed or Entex) - for congestion.
- Mild antihistamine (Chlor-Trimeton) - for runny nose, promotes fast-drying.
- Cough Suppressant (Delsym) - recommended for dry coughs
- Cough Syrup with expectorant (Robitussin) - for coughs with phlegm.
The single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccination each fall. The "flu shot" is an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle. The flu shot is approved for use in individuals older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions. Children and adults at high risk for developing complications due to the flu should seriously consider getting the flu vaccine. About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop which protect against influenza virus infection. Flu vaccines will not protect against influenza-like illnesses caused by other viruses.
The following measures are helpful in preventing the spread of colds & flu:
- Avoid Close Contact. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from also getting sick.
- Stay home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
- Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
- If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
- Clean your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches a surface that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.