Overview and Facts
Stuffy nose… sore throat… headache…. these are all symptoms that you are likely all too familiar with. The common cold is called ‘common’ for a reason – there are over one billion colds in the United States each year. The common cold is a viral infection that causes a group of symptoms in the nose and throat, or upper respiratory tract. Colds can appear year round but they most commonly occur in the winter months. More than 200 viruses can cause a common cold, and symptoms vary from congestion and sneezing to sore throat and cough.
But sometimes, these symptoms are indicative of another common infection: the flu. The flu, or influenza, is a very contagious respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat and lungs. There are three types of flu viruses – A, B and C. Type A and B cause the annual flu epidemics that affect 20% of people. Type C causes flu but it is much less severe. In general, flu season runs from fall to early spring. Flu is linked to an average of 36,000 deaths each year. The seasonal flu vaccine was created to help avert these epidemics.
Other types of flu
- Stomach flu: Stomach flu refers to gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, or the stomach and intestines. This inflammation is usually caused by an infection from a virus or possibly bacteria or parasites. Or, it can be caused by an adverse reaction to a food or medication. Stomach flu symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting.
- Swine flu: The H1N1 virus, or swine flu, is a new strain of flu virus that is causing sickness in people worldwide. Symptoms of swine flu are similar to classic flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, sore throat, runny nose, diarrhea and vomiting.
Signs and Symptoms
Cold and flu symptoms are very similar, but flu symptoms usually leave a person feeling much worse. Once you catch a cold, symptoms usually appear within 2-3 days, though in some cases it may take up to a week. Symptoms usually begin with a sore or irritated throat, followed by symptoms in the nose such as sneezing and nasal discharge.
Common cold symptoms include:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny Nose
- Sore throat
- Fever in children
- Body aches
- Post nasal drip
Flu symptoms are much like that of a cold, but typically leave you feeling much more miserable than if you had a cold. Flu usually begins abruptly with a fever that lasts anywhere from 1-5 days. Other common flu symptoms include:
- Body aches and pains
- Flushed skin
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dry cough
When it comes to flu, it is important to see a doctor to determine what type of flu it is. Symptoms of swine flu are similar to that of regular influenza and can be life threatening. Regular influenza that does not get treated could also lead to more serious conditions such as pneumonia, so it is important to get treatment.
Causes and Diagnosis
There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a common cold. However, the most common virus that causes colds is the rhinovirus, which is responsible for up to 40% of colds. Rhinoviruses are most active in early fall, spring and summer. Coronaviruses also cause a large amount of colds and are most active in the winter and early spring.
When someone is suffering from a cold, their runny nose is filled with cold viruses. The virus is spread by sneezing and nose blowing – people nearby may inhale the virus or touch something contaminated by the virus and then touch the eyes, mouth or nose.
When you do catch a cold, you are most contagious for the first 2-3 days. After a week or so, you usually are not contagious at all. For children, colds are spread very quickly in the classroom and when a new strain of a cold is introduced, it can affect a large group in a short period of time.
Unfortunately, there is no real medical test to determine if you have a cold. Diagnosis is largely based on symptoms and you don’t necessarily need a doctor for the diagnosis. If you have tried over the counter cold remedies such as Nyquil without success, it may be time to see a doctor for a prescription medication.
While lots of viruses can cause a common cold, influenza is caused by three viruses, A, B and C. Type A and B cause the annual flu epidemics that affect 20% of people. Type C causes flu but it is much less severe.
The flu is a very contagious sickness. Like the cold, the most common way people catch the flu is by breathing in infected droplets from the cough or sneeze of someone who has the flu. It can also be spread by direct contact with someone, whether by touching or sharing objects, or when you touch a surface that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.
People are contagious for up to 7 days after the onset of the flu. If you have flu symptoms, you should see a doctor. A flu diagnosis is usually made based on a persons flu symptoms, and in some cases a doctor may take a swab from your mouth to identify the presence of a flu virus.
Tests and Treatment Options
There is no standard medication to cure a common cold. Rather, there are a number of over the counter remedies for the common cold that will help ease symptoms. However, these don’t attack the cold virus and thus won’t get rid of the cold or shorten the duration. Decongestants, nasal sprays, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory drugs are all common over the counter cold medications that can provide cold relief.
In terms of flu treatment, there is no one medicine that can cure it but unlike the common cold there are two antiviral drugs that are recommended for use: Tamiflu and Relenza. These must be given within 48 hours of the onset of the flu. There are also many over the counter flu medications such as decongestants and nasal sprays that can ease flu symptoms.
If there is a swine flu outbreak in your area, it is especially important to call your doctor and get a prescription for antiviral flu drugs. There is no swine flu vaccine and season flu vaccine does not protect against the H1N1 virus.
In addition to taking over the counter and possibly prescription drugs for cold and flu, the following tips are also used as part of cold and flu treatment:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink lots of fluids
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco
- Avoid antibiotics
- Stay warm
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
There are a number of cold and flu remedies that can be done in the home and will help ease cold and flu symptoms.
Home remedies for cold and flu:
- Eat chicken noodle soup – the heat, salt and fluid can help you fight the infection off
- Natural remedies such as vitamin C, zinc and Echinacea
- Sleep with a humidifier to moisten air
- Gargle with warm salt water to relieve a sore throat
- Use moist heat compresses
- Drink hot liquids such as tea
- Sleep with an extra pillow to help clear nasal passages
- Take a steamy shower
Some believe that certain herbal supplements and natural remedies can help cure a cold. These include:
- Vitamin C
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine. There is no vaccine for the cold, but you can prevent both cold and flu by stopping the spread of germs and boosting your immune system:
- Wash hands with hot soap and water frequenty
- Disinfect commonly touched surfaces
- Get plenty of sleep
- Don’t use unnecessary antibiotics
- Use hand sanitizers
- Drink plenty of water
- Avoid secondhand smoke
- Eat yogurt