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Cold and Flu - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments

Published on Nov 07, 2018 and last reviewed on Jul 26, 2022   -  5 min read


The terms cold and flu are used interchangeably in many contexts. Although both are viral infections, they are caused by different types of virus and symptoms are slightly different in each. It is important to know the difference in order to take measures early and avoid complications. This article gives you an idea on how to effectively deal with cold and flu.

Cold and Flu - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments

While a cold is often wrongly referred to as flu, they are both quite different. Both the infections are caused by different types of virus, and symptoms vary as well. Both the infections are more common during the winters and are contagious, that is, it can spread from one person to another quite quickly. It spreads rapidly in closed rooms and confined spaces such as offices and schools. The common cold, although less severe, is responsible for the maximum number of school absentees.

But, while the cold goes away in a span of one to two weeks, the flu is more severe, and symptoms last longer. The flu may also lead to complications such as pneumonia. Therefore, it is essential to be able to identify both individually.

Causes of Cold and Flu

Many viruses are responsible for causing the common cold, but rhinovirus is the most common cause. When in fact, the flu is caused by the influenza virus. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets spray into the air. It can then enter a healthy human through their eyes, nose or mouth and make them sick. Another common mode of transmission is by means of simple handshakes. When you shake hands with a sick person and later touch your nose or mouth, the virus can spread to you. As also by sharing infected objects such as spoons, doorknobs, handles, and toys.

Symptoms of Cold and Flu

Although both cold and flu feel confusingly similar, they can be differentiated by their symptoms.

A common cold starts with a sore or itchy throat that lasts for two to three days. Then that symptom subsides a bit, followed by a period of sneezing, stuffiness and runny nose. There is nil to mild fatigue. Also, fever, headaches or muscle pains are rare. Post this, towards the end of the infection; there is a period of cough which may be mild to moderate. Common cold rarely leads to any other complications. It almost always resolves by itself in a span of one week to 10 days.

Flu is always accompanied by a high temperature that lasts three to four days. Also, there is an accompanying headache and body pain in the initial phase. Weakness and exhaustion are also observed in the starting stage of the disease. But, unlike the common cold, nose block, sneezing, and throat infection are rare in flu attacks. In contrast, it can cause severe and life-threatening complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Flu can be prevented with a vaccine, which is safe and effective. It is highly recommended to be taken annually as new viral strains keep developing every season.

Diagnosis of Cold and Flu

Apart from correctly diagnosing a cold or flu, it is also necessary to differentiate them from a bacterial infection and strep throat. Some common symptoms you need to watch out for are as follows.

Fever: A mild fever, if present is not worrisome. It is a sign that the body is fighting off an infection, But, a persistent fever lasting longer than three days needs to be checked for a bacterial infection. This will be done by a chest X-ray. If your doctor suspects a different cause or a complication, then blood tests and other investigations may be ordered.

Stuffy nose: A nose block, running or itchy nose is one of the first symptoms of a cold. Initially, the nasal discharge is watery and lighter in color. Later the mucus becomes thicker and darker. There may also be some nose to throat secretions.

Sneezing: A bout of sneezing may be triggered by the irritated nose. This is due to the natural immune mechanism of the body. Many people experience continuous episodes of sneezing.

Sore throat: Tissue inflammation during a viral infection can cause the throat to be swollen. In that case, swallowing becomes painful and uncomfortable. In addition, the throat feels dry and itchy.

Headache and body ache: These symptoms, although common, are more often associated with flu rather than the common cold.

Cough: Cough is one of the last few symptoms of cold/flu and takes the longest to subside. A cough can be dry or productive. No cough suppressants are generally prescribed for it unless it persists for more than three weeks or is accompanied by blood or dark mucus. This is because it is better for the mucus to be coughed out rather than settle in the lungs.

Muscle and joint pain: This is always associated with flu and rarely with a cold.

Other symptoms exclusive to flu are severe fatigue and warm flushed skin.

Treatments of Cold and Flu

If you are a healthy human being with a proper immune system, you do not need to visit a doctor for a cold. It is a self-limiting condition which resolves without medicines. There is no specific medicine as the virus keeps evolving and getting stronger. Antibiotics are not prescribed as they work only against bacteria and not against viruses. Some medicines may be suggested by the doctor for symptomatic relief.

Painkillers: These provide relief from fever, sore throat, headache and body pains. Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen are beneficial and mild. Aspirin is not safe due to a risk of complications.

Antihistamines: They dry out the excessive watery secretions from the nose and eyes. But, they may cause drowsiness and lethargy. So, it is not advisable to drive or operate any machinery after taking them.

Nasal decongestant: It is safe for adults with nose blocks to use decongestant sprays for up to five days. Beyond that, it is not advisable. Also, in children, it is not safe to give this unless specified by a doctor.

Cough syrup: Cough syrups are not commonly prescribed nor are they safe to be used from over the counter as they are not proven to be beneficial.

Home Remedies of Cold and Flu

As neither antibiotics nor symptomatic treatments provide complete cure from the infection, most people turn to home remedies when it comes to cold and flu.

  1. Drinking warm fluids: Warm water as well as soups soothe the irritated throat, releases the nasal congestion and relieves a severe cough. They also keep you hydrated which is the key in treating fever.
  2. Avoid beverages: Tea, coffee, cold drinks, soda, buttermilk, and alcohol are to be avoided when you have the cold and flu. Stick to broths and soups for a while.
  3. Salt water gargle: Add half a teaspoon of salt to one teaspoon of warm water and gargle with this solution first thing in the morning. It can also be repeated several times a day. This provides some relief from the sore throat.
  4. Bed rest: As simple as it sounds, rest and relaxation are important during this phase to help your body fight the infection efficiently.
  5. Using a humidifier: Your throat and mouth are already dry and raw. Dry weather can only make things worse. Use a humidifier in your room if that is the case. Also, set the temperature at a pleasant setting, not too warm or cold.
  6. Saline drops: Saline nasal drops can be used to relieve nasal congestion, especially useful in children.

Last reviewed at:
26 Jul 2022  -  5 min read




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