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 sneezing. 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 is caused by any of several known influenza viruses, primarily during fall and winter. The flu is more severe than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense.
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.
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.
Treating Colds and Flu
To treat cold and flu symptoms, look for over-the-counter medications that address your symptoms. A good rule of thumb is to use only one type of drug to address each symptom, for example, if you are taking a cough syrup that contains one type of pain reliever, do not also take a pill that contains a different pain reliever. If you choose a medicine that treats multiple symptoms (e.g. DayQuil) it’s best to stick with that medication to treat your symptoms.
Over-the-counter medications can be taken with home remedies such as eating chicken noodle soup, or soothing a sore throat by drinking hot tea with honey and lemon or gargling warm salt water. Some people take vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplements (e.g. Echinacea, vitamin C, zinc) but research has not proven that they work to prevent or treat cold and flu.
Flu can be treated with antiviral medications (e.g. Tamiflu), but these are only recommended when flu symptoms are severe and/or you are at high risk of complications related to having the flu. High risk conditions include having asthma, diabetes, chronic heart disease, or a weakened immune system due to disease.
These medications can only be prescribed so if you think you may be at high risk, schedule an appointment as soon as you have flu symptoms. Even though antiviral medications are an option, the best defense for people with high risk conditions is to get a flu vaccine.
Hand Washing Overview
Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps you 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 percent 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 palms together to make a lather and scrub hands well, doing the following:
- right palm over left dorsum with interlaced fingers and vice versa
- palm to palm with fingers interlaced
- backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked
- rotational rubbing of left thumb clasped in right palm and vice versa
- rotational rubbing, backwards and forwards with clasped fingers of right hand in left palm and vice versa
- Washing hands should take about 40 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.
CDC “An Ounce of Prevention” Campaign
WHO: Clean hands protect against infection
Information adapted from:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention