Common Cold vs. The Flu – Know the Difference
In a previous article I’ve covered one of the most common diseases people catch around this time of the year: common cold. I’ve covered its symptoms, its remedies, and a few myths that are known about this light, but annoying disease. And now the time has come to take a look at its bigger – and much worse – cousin, a disease that has a similar set of symptoms, but can be much more severe: influenza – or the flu.
Influenza (the flu): The Facts
Similar to the common cold, influenza is a viral infection with several of its symptoms affecting the upper respiratory tract. But, unlike the common cold, which can have over 200 infectious agents behind it, influenza is caused by a specific virus – the influenza virus.
The symptoms of the flu are similar to those of the common cold, but get much more severe: high fever and extreme coldness, cough, nasal congestion and a runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, headache, watering eyes, possibly rash, joint and throat aches and diarrhea and abdominal pain in children.
Unlike the common cold, that causes relatively mild symptoms that don’t last much longer than a week, the flu can last for two weeks or even more, and its symptoms are much more severe. Most people recover in about two weeks, but some develop serious – possibly life-threatening – complications such as pneumonia, or aggravate pre-existing conditions like coronary heart disease or congestive heart failure.
There are three known Influenza virus classes:
- Influenza A, a genus (group) that mostly infects birds and mammals. The most feared serotypes of the virus of the last few years all belong to this group – the Swine Flu, the Hong Kong Flu, the Bird Flu, among others – but the devastating Spanish Flu virus that killed millions in 1918 also belongs to this group.
- Influenza B, a genus that infects us, humans, and not much else. This group has only one serotype, and mutates much slower than the above strains. With its slow mutation people usually acquire a certain grade of immunity to this strain, which doesn’t last for too long.
- Influenza C, a genus that only infects people, dogs and pigs. It is a less common variant of the virus, and often considered the least severe of them all.
The influenza virus is transmitted through the same ways the infectious agents causing the common cold – direct contact of bodily fluids, inhaling infected aerosols and through hand-to-eye, hand-to-nose, or hand-to-mouth transmission, both person to person or through contaminated surfaces. What makes it more dangerous is that those infected start to transmit the disease even before they show any symptoms. Humidity, UV radiations and the temperature all affect the ability of the virus to travel from one person to another – lack of sunlight and low humidity help it infect for longer.
The influenza virus can be transmitted through a series of everyday objects – door knobs, light switches, even bank notes and other household items.
Good personal hygiene – like in the case of the common cold – has a great role in avoiding to transmit or receive an influenza virus. During flu season – and throughout the year – it’s best to not touch one’s eyes, nose or mouth without washing one’s hand, to wash hands frequently and to avoid contact with infected people. Those infected should cover their mouth when coughing and sneezing, eventually wear a face mask to prevent the further spread of the virus.
The influenza vaccine is a way to prevent becoming infected – the World Health Organization recommends the vaccination of all high risk groups, especially children, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses and health care workers and so on. But inoculation doesn’t provide long term protection against influenza, as the virus mutates at an increased speed, so it’s recommended to be repeated at least once every two years, or even more often.
Just like in the case of the common cold, those having the flu are recommended to consume as much fluid as possible, rest as much as they can and avoid alcohol and tobacco consumption. Symptomatic treatment is available for the muscle aches and the fever.
Just like in the case of the common cold, there’s no effective treatment against the flu. There are two types of antiviral agents in use against the disease. One of them, known as a neuraminidase inhibitor, has a limited effect, reducing the symptoms of the disease by a small amount of time. The other, known as an M2 inhibitor, is effective in the early stages of an Influenza A infection, but has no effect on Influenza B.
Myhts about the flu
Myth: You can get the flu from a flu vaccine
No, you can’t – the flu vaccine contains an inactive virus that helps the body create antibodies for that specific strain. When people get sick after being inoculated blame the vaccine. But it’s not to blame. It takes about two weeks until your body develops protection against the influenza virus – and during that time you can catch the disease if you’re not careful.
Myth: The flu is only transmitted by people showing its symptoms
No, it’s not. Up to 30% of the people infected with the influenza virus are carries, meaning that they don’t show any symptoms of the disease. Besides, the virus spreads even during the incubation period as well.
Myth: Antibiotics will cure the flu
No, they won’t. Antibiotics are effective against bacteria, but they won’t do you any good against a virus. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics as a preventive measure against bacterial infections that might appear while the patient’s immune system is weakened by the fight against the flu. But strictly avoid self-medication with antibiotics!
Myth: “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” And vice versa
The fact that this myth exists in two contradictory versions should say a lot about its veracity. The cold and the flu sometimes affect a person’s appetite. Starving yourself or forcing yourself to eat won’t do you any good. If you can eat, eat – a good nutrition usually helps you get better, though.
Myth: The flu is just a severe cold
Although this has a grain of truth in it – the influenza virus can cause the common cold – there is a huge difference between the two. The common cold is a mild disease, while influenza sends hundreds of thousands of people to the hospital each year – and in tens of thousands of cases the outcome is the worst possible for a disease.
What if I get infected?
The initial symptoms of the flu are similar to that of the common cold. But if you observe that they are becoming severe – high fever, headaches and all of the above – be sure to seek medical attention.