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What's the Difference
Between a Cold and the Flu?
(Cold vs. Flu)

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 28 in the February 13, 2013 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

How do you know if it is the cold or the flu? Generally, influenza can be more severe and sudden.

There are two distinct families of influenza viruses which invade humans. Influenza A, attacks quite suddenly, while Influenza B strains produce a milder disease. You might wake up feeling sore and achy all over with no appetite, and go on to develop a high fever with chills and rigors (shivering or trembling).

Colds on the other hand, tend to progress slower, over a period of a few days, and only last a few days. Sore throats are common with both. Colds are due to rhinoviruses and produce running noses, cough and stuffy sinuses. Influenza severity may not allow you to even get out of bed easily.

During the 1918 Influenza A epidemic, stories abound about the severity of strain. Young healthy people would wake up afflicted. The disease would progress so quickly to weaken and dehydrate the body and affect the lungs, filling them with fluid that at times people succumbed in the same day.

Influenza A is the reason we advocate "Flu shots" every year. The shots confer immunity against numerous strains. Influenza can last well beyond a week. In both diseases, long term immunity results after surviving an infection. But the viruses can mutate into a new strain capable of re-infecting the population. There are many different influenza strains active in the community at once. This means that you could get influenza and colds repeatedly in the same season.

At the first sign of either illness, it is best to start drinking water to replenish the fluid lost to fever. Many of the symptoms are produced by our own bodies to defend the attack. Fever can decrease viral replication. Muscle aches can be the first sign that our immune system has been activated. Lymph nodes swell and produce antibody defenders by the millions.

Taking analgesics to help the aches is also a good idea. A warm beverage with a citrus flavouring is helpful in keeping sinus passages open. Antibiotics have no role in the early stages of both illnesses. They are used to treat secondary infections and strep throats, which may have many clinical symptoms in common. There may be a role for zinc lozenges and vitamin C once symptoms appear, but they do not prevent the illnesses. Echinacea taken by mouth has no proven effect.

Your doctor will take a history and examine you to try and determine which affliction you have. Testing for Influenza is a little uncomfortable and requires a swab to enter the back of the nose. Often times, you may have a throat swab drawn to ensure that a bacterial cause for symptoms is not present.

There are two medications on the market which can be used to lessen the severity and duration of Influenza. Both are by prescription, and need to be started as soon as symptoms appear to be effective. There is no use in getting a flu shot once you have symptoms. To acquire immunity through a shot takes about 7-14 days.

When influenza hits, stay rested, stay hydrated, treat the symptoms vigorously and avoid contact sports.

Related resources:

Cold Versus Flu: Questions & Answers from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu? What are the symptoms of the flu versus the symptoms of a cold?

19 Ways to Prevent and Treat Colds and Flu by Megan Hirt, Mother Earth News, Jan. 2013. Stay well this winter with these proven strategies for preventing colds and flu, and some simple, natural cold and flu remedies.

Cold & Flu Quiz: Can You Tell the Difference? From WebMD. 12 questions, correct answers provided.

Cold and Flu Symptoms Chart from WebMD.

Is It a Cold or the Flu? From KidsHealth. Flu vs. Colds: A Guide to Symptoms.

Cold vs. Flu Screening Quiz from Pediatrics.About.com. Do you have the flu or just a simple cold?

What You Can Do to Prevent Cold or Flu. Dr. Joseph Mercola talks about the real cause of cold and flu. How you can treat and prevent them the natural and healthy way. YouTube video, 8:55 min.

Cold Vs. Flu by Caryn Kelly, eHow Contributor. "Colds and flu are contagious illnesses caused by viruses that strike the respiratory system.

Symptoms of a cold are coughing, sore throat, stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing and chest congestion. Symptoms of the flu are fever, dry cough, aches, pains and chills, tiredness, headaches, and severe chest pain.

Duration: Cold symptoms surface gradually over a few days while the flu can come on suddenly within three to six hours. A cold can last for about a week, while the flu can hang on for a week or more.

Remedies: Common cold remedies include cold medicines, antihistamines, expectorants and nasal decongestants. Rest, drinking fluids, gargling with warm salty water, and taking aspirin or Tylenol can help. An antiviral drug for flu is sometimes prescribed for at-risk people.

Warnings: Flu symptoms can develop into pneumonia that may require a hospital stay. If a sore throat lasts more than 48 hours, a strep test should be performed.

Prevention: Getting an annual flu vaccine, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing, washing your hands and applying antibacterial gel, avoiding contact with sick people, and keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth will help prevent both colds and flu."

Cold or flu? It's not just in your head from CBC News. "A cold and the flu share some of the same symptoms. But even a bad cold is pretty mild, compared to a bout with the flu. No pill or herb will get rid of either --- each is caused by viruses and antibiotics, herbal remedies and homeopathic medicines are useless against them. You can take things that might ease your symptoms, but there is no cure. Your illness will have to run its course."

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