By Kathryn Galbraith, M.D.
It’s that time of year again, when, along with falling snow, colder temperatures and shorter days, catching a cold or the flu becomes more likely. Both illnesses are caused by viruses, but the flu can be more severe than a cold and cause more complications, such as pneumonia. For the flu, there are antiviral medicines available to help shorten the illness and minimize complications, but for the common cold, there is only supportive measures to help symptoms while the body fights the virus. Telling the difference between the two can be very helpful in getting better, but that is not always easy as symptoms can be similar.
The common cold is caused by a variety of viruses, the most common being various strains of Rhinovirus, but can also be caused by Corona Virus (COVID-19 is one of these) and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) subtypes. The typical symptoms include runny nose, stuffy nose, sinus pressure or headache, sneezing, cough, low grade fever, sore throat, tiredness and body achiness. Symptoms typically last about a week but can linger for up to two weeks. While generally less severe than the flu, colds can make you feel miserable and can be quite debilitating. Because of this, the common cold has been cited as a leading cause of doctor’s office visits and missed work or school days each year, as evidenced by the fact that approximately 22 million school days are lost each year in the United States due to the common cold, according to the CDC. There is no cure for the common cold, and antibiotics will not help, but there are things your doctor can suggest to help you manage the symptoms.
The flu, on the other hand, is caused by one of three Influenza viruses: Influenza A, B, and C, each of which also has a variety of subtypes such as the H1N1 subtype of Influenza A also known as the “Swine flu.” Active strains of influenza virus vary from year to year, prompting a new flu vaccine formulation each year. Symptoms of influenza tend to be more severe and include moderate to high grade fever, shaking chills, dry cough, severe body aches, and extreme fatigue. Some people may also experience diarrhea and vomiting, but this is more often seen in children. If the flu is suspected, it is a good idea to call your doctor to see if testing for influenza is necessary. Identifying true influenza is helpful as the antivirus medicines used to limit the length and severity of the infection work best if begun within the first 48 hours of the illness.
Symptomatic treatments for the cold and flu can overlap. The single most important thing is to rest! That can and should mean staying home from work or school for the first few days of the illness. Staying well hydrated is also critical. Medicines like Tylenol or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen can help with fever and body aches. Some people find tea with honey or throat lozenges soothe a cough and sore throat. A humidifier can benefit nasal congestion and cough. If postnasal drip seems to be a driver of a cough or if a runny nose is particularly bothersome, an antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritan can improve symptoms. Steroid nasal sprays like Flonase or Nasonex help both postnasal drip and congestion. Check with your doctor if you are unsure if any of these treatments may not be right for you. It is also important to call your doctor if you develop trouble breathing, severe sore throat, cough that produces bloody mucus, persistent high fever, or chest discomfort. For children, labored breathing, irritability, lethargy, refusing to eat or drink, or trouble awakening or interacting are reasons to call the doctor right away.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To prevent the cold and flu the most important thing is to wash your hands regularly! Both the common cold and the influenza viruses are spread by droplets left by an infected person when they sneeze or cough and then touch a surface like a counter or doorknob. We unwittingly infect ourselves when we touch our nose, mouth or eyes after coming into contact with these droplets. Always cover your mouth and nose with a Kleenex or your inner elbow when coughing or sneezing and then wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer afterward. Keep your hands away from your mouth, eyes and nose as much as possible. Avoid those who are sick, and do not share utensils, water bottles or toothbrushes with anyone. For the flu, get your flu shot! It is recommended for anyone age 6 months and older, but especially for those most at risk for complications from the flu including those over age 65, children under 2 years of age, pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems due to things like prednisone use or chemothereapy, those with chronic heart or lung disease, diabetics, and residents of nursing homes or long term care facilities. Don’t forget to do the things we should all do anyway to keep ourselves strong and healthy such as eating right, getting regular exercise, and making sure to get adequate sleep.
For more information, talk to your doctor!