Cold and Flu Overview
The common cold and the flu (influenza) are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses, but both have similar symptoms which can make it difficult to tell the difference between them. To determine if a person has a cold or the flu, special tests must be run within the first few days of illness.
The Common Cold
Colds are usually caused by a type of virus called Rhinovirus (rhino means nose). Generally a cold is milder than the flu, and those with a cold are likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. A cold is characterized by a run-down feeling, scratchy throat, watery eyes, runny nose, and sneezes. Sometimes a mild temperature or a subnormal temperature is present (97-100 degrees).
Usually a cold will go away on its own over time, and can be managed with rest, fluids, and warm salt water gargles. Most medications used for colds provide relief of symptoms but don’t kill viruses the way antibiotics fight bacterial infections. Generally, colds last seven to fourteen days and do not result in serious health problems such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.
The flu often begins like a cold, with a runny nose and a general run-down feeling, but more severe symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, muscle pain, weakness, headache, dry cough, or loss of appetite, develop abruptly in one or two days. Occasionally, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or all three accompany flu symptoms. Chills and subnormal temperature or a mild temperature are more common than with a cold.
Video: Flu Attack! How A Virus Invades Your Body
Preventing the Spread of Colds and the Flu
Both cold and flu viruses are spread from one person to another through contact with saliva or mucous droplets from moist breath, talking, sneezing, coughing, or hand contact with the mouth or nose.
To prevent the spread of colds and the flu please remember the following:
- Wash your hands
- Cover your cough
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Get a flu shot if you haven’t had one already
Hand Washing Overview
Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hands with soap and clean, running water.
If clean, running water is not accessible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to clean hands.
When to Wash Your Hands
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After touching an animal or animal waste
- After handling pet food or pet treats
- After touching garbage
How to Wash Your Hands
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
- Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well: be sure to scrub the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
Information adapted from:
Center for Disease Control and Prevention