Cold and influenza are the most common illnesses in people, according to an article published in The Lancet.
Every year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population in the United States develop flu symptoms. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of flu complications, and the flu is responsible for around 23,600 deaths every year.
Both the flu and a cold are caused by viruses, and they can have similar symptoms. So how do we know if a person has the flu or a bad cold?
The main indication is that symptoms of the flu are usually a lot more severe.
Contents of this article:
What is a cold?
Both the flu and a cold are caused by viruses, and they can have similar symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult will have two to three colds every year. The rhinovirus is the most common cause.
There is no cure, except for resting and drinking plenty of fluids, but the cold should pass within 7 to 10 days. There is normally no need to visit a doctor, but a person with a weakened immune system is more prone to developing pneumonia as a complication.
To avoid catching or spreading a cold, people should wash their hands regularly and make sure they sneeze into a tissue or handkerchief, or into their elbow.
Signs and symptoms of the flu
There are three types of flu virus, influenza A, influenza B and influenza C. Types A and B viruses are the ones that cause seasonal epidemics.
One of the key symptoms of flu is feeling feverish or having a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or above. However, not everyone with the flu will have a fever.
Other symptoms include:
- Headaches or body aches
- Vomiting, nausea, and possibly diarrhea, especially in children
- Sore throat and a cough
- A congested or runny nose
A common cold is less likely to cause a high fever. With a cold, symptoms such as a runny nose or throat irritation will normally improve within a few days.
The flu virus can cause a high fever lasting 3 to 4 days, and extreme fatigue can persist for weeks. Cold symptoms are generally milder. Runny nose or nasal congestion is more common with a cold.
What to do if you have the flu
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that most people who have the flu do not need medical attention.
A person with the flu should stay at home to avoid spreading the disease.
Most can remain at home and avoid contact with other people, to prevent the disease from spreading. The CDC recommend staying at home until at least 24 hours after the fever has gone, except to get medical care.
Over-the-counter medications to reduce fever, such as Tylenol, can help.
Prescription antiviral flu drugs are also available from a physician. These are for people who are at high risk of serious complications.
Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections, but the flu is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Antiviral drugs are only effective if started within a certain time period after the onset of symptoms, so they are not always useful for improving symptoms or shortening the course of the illness.
A physician will be able to decide if antivirals are indicated in a particular case.
People who tend to be at greater risk including infants under the age of 2 years, people aged 65 years and older, and pregnant women.
People with the following health conditions may also be more prone to complications:
- Asthma and chronic lung disease, such as COPD
- Neurological disorders
- Metabolic disorders
- Heart disease
- Morbid obesity
- Children aged 18 years and younger who are taking aspirin long term
- People with a weakened immune system, including those with AIDS, HIV, and cancer.
People in this higher risk group should see a doctor.
Patients should seek medical help if they notice any of the emergency warning signs.
Warning signs in infants include difficulty breathing, having no appetite, and not producing tears when they cry, or having fewer wet diapers than usual.
Severe symptoms in older children include:
- Breathing problems
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or interacting
- Being so irritable that they do not want to be held
- Fever with a rash.
If flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and a worse cough, the parent should consult a physician.
Signs of serious illness in adults include difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, confusion, and dizziness.
Anti-flu vaccines and other types of protection
A flu vaccination will help the body build the necessary defenses.
One way to protect against the flu is by having an annual vaccination, as this helps the body to build the necessary defenses so that it can fight off the virus more quickly.
The CDC give recommendations on which flu shot is appropriate for each flu season.
It is important to practice hand hygiene, washing the hands frequently with soap and water, and possibly using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol. People should also avoid touching their face.
At times when flu is most likely, avoiding large crowds can help.
Recent research suggests that one day, there will be a universal flu vaccine that can protect people from all kinds of flu. This may help to prevent an eventual flu pandemic.
Some home remedies
A number of remedies can help people to stay comfortable at home until the symptoms have passed.
- Saline nose drops can help relieve a blocked nose
- Vapor rubs can make it easier to breathe
- A vapor bath with eucalyptus can ease congestion
- Gargling with salt water or sucking on a lozenge can ease the pain of a sore throat
- Tylenol and similar medications can relieve aches and pains.
A number of herbs may help to relieve symptoms. Examples include eucalyptus in lozenges and licorice for sore throats. Not all the suggested remedies are supported by research, and some must be used with care.
Eucalyptus oil, for example, is poisonous if taken by mouth, and licorice is not rrecommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It is important to consult a physician before using any alternative remedy at home.
It is also important to eat healthily, drink plenty of fluids, and rest.