Someone blowing their nose into a tissue, holding a cup of tea.

Common Cold vs Flu: What’s the Difference?

What Is the Difference Between the Cold and Flu?

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses and are both caused by a virus. Even seasoned health professionals can get confused by the two. However, the difference between cold and flu are the different symptoms and health concerns. The flu can result in serious complications, which include pneumonia. Because of this, it helps to know the differences between both.

Symptoms of the Common Cold and Flu

The common cold appears gradually. For example, one day, there could be a tingle and tickle in the nose. The next morning there could be sniffles. That afternoon could bring full sneezing and a runny nose. The flu occurs suddenly. One morning there may be no symptoms, but by that afternoon, a person may be under the covers feeling poorly and too tired to get out of bed.

The common cold's symptoms are typically restricted to the respiratory area. Almost always, there is a runny nose, sneezing, headache and congestion. There may even be a sore throat and cough. However, there is usually no fever or body aches. With a cold, a person may feel tired but can still function and perform daily tasks. Their fatigue is never extreme and they rarely have a fever. A cold has a duration of about a week at the most.

Flu symptoms, on the other hand, will typically spread to the rest of the body. Although a person with the flu may sometimes exhibit a runny nose and sneezing, there is almost always the presence of body aches and overwhelming fatigue. The flu may also bring headaches and severe exhaustion, keeping a person from functioning well. The flu has a duration of one to three weeks.

In short, the flu is far worse than a cold and has more severe complications. Its onset is quick; the symptoms include a fever and can have a person bedridden in a very short amount of time. The flu can lead to pneumonia and a bacterial infection.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the flu is responsible for between 12,000 to 61,000 deaths annually. The flu can be especially dangerous for young children, seniors and people who are immunocompromised.

Cold and Flu Treatments

For the common cold, no treatments are typically necessary. Antibiotics are not typically used on viruses. For the flu, however, an annual flu vaccine can help prevent infections and minimize symptoms if infected. Antibiotics can be used if a viral infection affects the ears or sinuses. Some individuals may choose to use over the counter cold and flu remedies like a decongestant or analgesics (pain medication).

Following are a list of cold and flu treatments to help curb symptoms:

  • Nasal decongestants can be used on older children and adults to help clear nasal passages.
  • Antihistamines
  • Analgesic and antipyretic medications can be used to treat body aches, headaches and high fevers. (Aspirin is not recommended for the flu and should not be given children.)
  • Guaifenesin is medication like Robitussin and Mucinex), which are oral expectorants that help to release mucus and clear out the airway.
  • Codeine and hydrocodone are cough suppressants that require a doctor's prescription because they contain narcotics. Dextromethorphan (Tussin P) is available over the counter as a non-narcotic cough suppressant.

Complications From the Flu

For most people who become infected by the flu, they will recover without any adverse effects. There are others, however, who will suffer complications and require medical interventions. Complications from the flu virus can be moderate to severe and, in some cases, can result in a bacterial coinfection.

Moderate complications from the flu:

  • Sinus infections
  • Ear infections

Severe complications from the flu:

  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the heart
  • Inflammation of the brain
  • Inflammation of the muscles
  • Kidney failure
  • Respiratory failure
  • Sepsis
  • Death

High Risk Populations

Although anyone can be infected by the flu, there are some people who are particularly susceptible to complications when infected. For these populations, maintaining handwashing precautions, adhering to vaccine recommendations and understanding the differences between a cold and the flu is vital to their health. High risk populations are:

  • People 65 years and older
  • People with chronic disorders (diabetes, asthma, heart disease)
  • Immunocompromised people
  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than five, particularly those younger than two years of age

The Flu Vaccine

An annual flu vaccine is released for administration each year to help prevent the spread of the flu virus. The flu vaccine is not always guaranteed to prevent seasonal flu because the flu virus can mutate quickly. However, researchers attempt to predict the seasonal flu and devise a vaccine for each season. A flu vaccine is still a sound preventative measure for the flu. Due to the flu's potential for serious complications, the CDC advises anyone six years old and older to obtain the flu vaccine each year.

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