Cold or flu – which one is it?

Cold or flu - which one is it?

Is that time of the year again; flu shot and flu season. Cold (common cold) and flu (influenza) are the most common acute respiratory illness and reasons for visits to a medical clinic in Canada, especially in the late fall-winter season (flu season). These illnesses are highly contagious. While most cases are not life-threatening and do not require significant treatment, they cause variable degrees of health challenges and economic loss.

Studies have shown that in Canada, adults suffer from a cold four to six times and children six to eight times every year. Cold is a cause of 40 per cent and 30 per cent of all-time off work and school, respectively. Similarly, while an average of 12,200 Canadians is hospitalized each year from flu, about 3,500 die every year from it.

Though cold and flu symptoms manifest and are treated in similar ways, they are caused by different viruses and are of varying severity. Generally, flu is a more severe illness and could cause pneumonia and death in a high-risk population. Headache, fever, body ache/pain, fatigue/exhaustion, chills/sweat, nausea/vomiting/diarrhea and cough are both most common and severe in flu compared to cold illness. Unlike flu, sore throat, sneezing and stuffy nose are more common in cold illness. Cold is milder, starts slower and lasts longer (up to two weeks). Both are transmitted from person-person by breathing infected mouth/nasal secretion. A person with flu is contagious a day before becoming ill to the first five days of the illness.

While there are about 200 different viruses that cause cold, viruses that cause flu are much fewer; this makes the production of vaccines for flu easier. It is recommended that every person at risk of getting ill with flu and/or spreading flu virus should get a flu vaccine every year.

However, the flu vaccine is especially important for people at high risk of severe flu illness. This include children younger than two years of age, adults 65 years and older, pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with chronic medical conditions and weak immune system, people living in nursing homes and health care workers.

In most cases, the treatment of cold and/or flu is by self and is basically treating the symptoms. If you end up with cold and/or flu, get plenty of rest, stop smoking, drink lots of fluid and avoid things that could make you dehydrated ( alcohol , caffeine), gargle your throat with warm saline saltwater, use saline nasal drop, use humidifier, use appropriate cold/flu medicines ( e.g acetaminophen, ibuprofen, etc ) and consult your doctor if you’re not getting better.

Considering challenges associated with suffering from cold/flu, prevention rather than treatment is highly recommended.

Preventive measures confirmed to be effective are; appropriate hand washing, healthy eating, adequate exercise and sleep, coughing and sneezing into elbow (not hand), cleaning surfaces with potential of been contaminated by viruses with disinfectant, staying home when sick, staying away from sick people, and getting flu vaccine every year.

Though severe cold/flu is uncommon, early recognition of potentially severe flu is very important in preventing complicated flu and death. You should consult your doctor if you develop below symptoms; high fever, symptom persisting longer than 10 days, trouble/fast breathing, change in mental state, worsening of symptoms following initial few days of improvement, ear/sinus/chest pain, persisting vomiting/diarrhea/poor appetite, worsening faint feeling, exhaustion, and chronic disease conditions.

Cold and flu are caused by viruses. So, antibiotics are not useful and not recommended. Inappropriate use of antibiotics could be harmful. Consider consulting your doctor if your symptoms are severe and/or not resolving after 10 days.