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The Difference Between A Cold And The Flu

Medical Daily logo Medical Daily 2015-03-09 Stephanie Castillo

We asked a doctor to help us tell the two apart, once and for all. © Photo courtesy of Shutterstock We asked a doctor to help us tell the two apart, once and for all.

For anyone who’s ever needed Google to help them determine if they have a common cold or flu, you should know you’re not alone. There are thousands of searches conducted each month on the stark differences between the two, as well as their similar symptoms. And over the course of the year, search volume spikes between December and February — aka peak cold and flu season.

In a recent survey of 1,000 people throughout the U.S., 73 percent had fallen ill this season; parents typically get sick twice each cold and flu season, while three in four parents have sent their child sick to school before. The latter is particularly problematic, because it puts other people at risk. The same goes for the workplace: 69 percent of working Americans didn’t take sick days when they were sick (though paid sick leave reduces the spread of illness). On average, sick employees have gone to work sick twice in the past six months.

So, when is something like a chest-rattling cough a severe cold and when is it the flu? Dr. Arta Bakshandeh, medical officer with Alignment Healthcare in Irvine, Calif., helped shed some light.

“Although both the cold and flu come from a viral etiology, the common cold is an acute infection of upper airway, generally producing nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, sneezing, and sore throat,” Bakshandeh told Medical Daily in an email. He added it’s also generally self-limiting and mild.

The flu, on the other hand, can be much more aggressive; last December, it shut down the Polk County School System in Georgia. Bakshandeh said an uncomplicated strain of flu may present symptoms not unlike the common cold: fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion or rhinorrhea, headache, muscle pain, malaise, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may be present, especially in children.

“But unlike the common cold, influenza can progress to a more complicated or severe state with respiratory tract disease,” he said. These symptoms include shortness of breath, severe dehydration, as well as secondary complications, like renal and multi-organ failure. So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported six, influenza-associated pediatric deaths.

In addition to children, patients with chronic diseases like COPD, heart failure, and diabetes are particularly susceptible to flu complications.

Preventing Cold And Flu

A hot mug of tea and chicken soup may be science-backed ways to restore health when you’re sick, but tackling a cold or flu shouldn’t always be reactive.

A 2014 study found virus spreads rapidly within two to four hours — and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant wipes, as well as practicing good hygiene, reduced contamination by 80 to 99 percent. Other than hand hygiene, Bakshandeh recommends his patient be physically active.  A separate, observational study showed moderately and highly active adults were at reduced risk for upper respiratory infections, especially in the fall.

Fitness expert Chris Freytag told Preventionabout her “neck check:” If your symptoms are all above your neck, exercise can improve symptoms like congestion and low energy. If your symptoms are below your neck, Freytag advises exercisers to take it easy until they’re feeling better.

One last thing to help with a common cold: probiotics. Bakshandeh cited a number of studies that suggest although probiotics don’t prevent a cold, there seems to be evidence they help decrease duration.

Of course, when it comes to the flu, the number one way to be proactive is to get vaccinated. Bakshandeh said; “Vaccination is the primary mechanism for prevention of influenza infection.” After that, it’s a matter of staying away from anyone who has the flu. And if this isn’t ideal, don’t be afraid to wear a surgical mask.

The CDC recommends patients with influenza-like illness should remain isolated until free of fever (100 degrees F) for 24 hours. Or, if patients are high-risk or in health care settings, Bakshandeh said they may be encouraged to remain isolated for seven days after symptom onset or until they’re free of fever — whichever is longer.

Out Of The Woods

Another fun fact: Peak season isn’t limited to the months of December, January, and February. In recent years, the cold and flu season has lasted longer than expected. Additionally, it’s also begun earlier than expected. Being proactive is key now that it’s harder to narrow down when it starts and, more importantly, ends.

I was curious about the kinds of questions Bakshandeh is asked when it comes to cold and flu. And one of his favorites is when his patients ask him to prescribe antibiotics for a cold, to which he always answers "no" with a smile.

“Giving antibiotics is inappropriate for a multitude of reasons, but simply, antibiotics are for bacterial illnesses, not for viral illness,” he said. “There are antiviral medications on the market for influenza, which can decrease severity and length of disease, but nothing exists as of today for the common cold.”

The next most popular questions is — like us — how to tell if you’re suffering from a cold or flu. While there is a blood test to determine influenza A and B, the common cold is often a clinical diagnosis.

In which case, if any of these symptoms (whether they be for cold or flu) sounds a little too familiar, visit your doctor as soon as possible.

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