(common colds) and the flu (influenza) are contagious infections that affect
the respiratory system. Both are airborne illnesses, spread through coughing
and sneezing. Colds typically are confined to the upper respiratory system—the nose
and throat—but the flu affects the lungs and in severe cases may cause death,
especially in senior citizens, young children, and those with a compromised
What Are the Causes of Cold and Flu?
the common cold and the flu are typically caused by viruses. According to the
Mayo Clinic, there are over 100 viruses that can cause cold symptoms (Mayo Clinic, 2013).
are also many different viruses that can cause the flu. According to the World
Health Organization, the medical community combines the three most common
viruses (A, B, and C) under the heading of seasonal influenza. Type A influenza
has several subtypes or strains, and is believed to be the most dangerous of
the three viruses that cause flu. Researchers believe that strains of type A
influenza were responsible for the global outbreaks of flu in 1918, 1957, and
1968 (WHO, 2009).
What Are the Symptoms of Cold?
of the common cold are unpleasant, but not usually dangerous. Beginning two to
three weeks after infection, they include
- sore throat
- stuffy nose caused by
buildup of mucus or phlegm
- swelling of sinuses
- sneezing and/or coughing
- general sense of being
tired and out of sorts
usually don’t run temperatures when they have a cold, but children can run
temperatures of up to 102 degrees.
symptoms of the common cold usually last anywhere from 48 hours to 14 days.
Most people recuperate fully within 10 days.
What Are the Symptoms of Flu?
flu has many symptoms in common with a cold, but there are some significant
differences as well. Symptoms found in both cold and flu may include:
- sore throat
- stuffy or runny nose
that set the flu apart from a common cold include:
- high fever, usually of
- chills (related to
- muscle aches and joint
How Are Colds and Flu Diagnosed?
people with colds do not go to the doctor. When they do, the doctor usually
makes his or her diagnosis based on the patient’s description of symptoms.
Occasionally, the doctor might order a test like a throat culture to rule out a
more serious condition like strep throat.
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu can likewise be
diagnosed by a description of symptoms, but there are times when a doctor may
want to do certain laboratory tests to identify the strain of flu involved.
Tests are more effective if performed within four days of the onset of symptoms
is generally performed by swabbing the patient’s nose or throat for secretions.
In cases where the patient is coughing up phlegm, sputum may be tested as well.
influenza tests can give doctors results in less than 15 minutes, but these
tests tend to have a high rate of false negatives—that is, the test says the
person does not have influenza when in fact he or she does.
other kind of test, a viral culture, involves sending the swab to a lab. The
results are not available for three to 10 days, but viral cultures can give a
doctor very specific information about the exact type and strain of the
influenza virus involved (CDC,
Treatments for Cold and Flu
is no cure for the common cold, but there are medications that may make the
symptoms a little more bearable. These include over-the-counter pain and fever
relievers, nasal sprays to ease congestions, and cough medications. If you have
several medical conditions, take prescription medications, or are planning
treatment for a young child, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking
are also some things you can do at home that will help you feel better. These
include drinking lots of water to stay hydrated, getting as much rest as
possible, using a humidifier to moisten the air and make breathing easier, and
relieving throat pain with salt water gargles.
same interventions can also help ease symptoms of the flu. Most adults do not
require medical intervention and recover from the flu within three to five
days. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, you should seek medical
attention if you meet any of the following criteria:
- you are pregnant or have
just given birth
- the patient is under two
- you have other severe
health conditions, especially those involving the lungs (e.g., COPD)
- you are 65 years old or
- you are an American
Indian or a Native Alaskan (Minnesota
Department of Health)
cases like these, your doctor might prescribe a type of medicine known as an
antiviral. The two antivirals most commonly used to treat influenza are
oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). You take oseltamivir by mouth
and zanamivir by inhaler. Zanamivir is not recommended for anyone with
pre-existing respiratory problems.
What Complications Are Associated with Colds and the Flu?
colds and the flu can make you feel absolutely miserable, but they generally
fade away on their own after a few days.
are, however, a few complications to look out for. In children, colds can lead
to painful ear infections. They may also cause wheezing and trouble breathing
in children with asthma. In both children and adults, there is a possibility
that a cold may lead to a sinus infection or another type of secondary
infection. These infections are often bacterial and need to be evaluated and
treated by a doctor.
is most dangerous in young children (under the age of two) and older adults
(over the age of 65). These populations are vulnerable to complications
including bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, and pneumonia.
Pneumonia is the most serious outcome and can lead to death.
How Can Colds and Flu Be Prevented?
best prevention for both colds and flu is good hygiene. Be sure to wash your
hands carefully and often. It also helps to keep your home and appliances clean
and as germ-free as possible.
you have a runny nose or are coughing and sneezing, carry a stash of tissues
around with you. Discard a tissue after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze
into it. If you feel a sneeze coming and don’t have a tissue available, sneeze
into the crook of your arm. This helps keep your hands clean.
away from people who exhibit signs of a cold or the flu. During flu season
(October through May), try to stay away from large crowds of people.
an annual flu vaccine. The vaccine will protect you against the three viruses
that are most likely to cause influenza during the coming season. If you’re not
fond of shots, you may be eligible to get your vaccination as a nasal spray.