Cold Vs. Flu: Which Do You Have?

ColdOrFlu_slide01Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
Cold and flu season is upon us. And, while we can all agree that having those germs attack from every angle is the worst, figuring out just which ailment has us reaching for the tissues requires some debate. Both the flu and common cold share many of the same symptoms — from a stuffy nose to a hacking cough — so it can be pretty tricky to distinguish between the two. We’re here to break down the mechanics of both types of viruses, how to treat each, and how to prevent getting sick at all next time they come around.

The Onslaught — How The Cold And Flu Attack

The first thing to know about viruses is that antibiotics won’t do a thing to get rid of them. They are just around waiting to be caught, and then must be endured. When someone infected with a virus coughs or sneezes and we breathe in the surrounding air containing droplets of the virus, or if we touch a doorknob or keyboard with the virus on it (and then touch our mouth, nose, or eyes), we can get the cold or flu.

Flu season can start as early as October and continue through late May, but it generally peaks in January or February. So, now. There are three types of influenza virus: A, B, and C. The first two cause seasonal bouts of the flu nearly every winter in the U.S., a newer subtype of influenza A virus can cause a pandemic, like the swine flu (H1N1) that affected more than 200 countries during the 2009 and 2010 season. Type C infections just cause a mild respiratory illness. The super-scary detail about the flu is that it changes every year (meaning researchers have to make an educated guess which viruses will be most prevalent during the upcoming season). As a result, flu shots aren’t completely foolproof. Though current vaccines protect against multiple viruses, it’s possible that a certain inoculation is not well matched to the circulating viruses, meaning it’s more or less a dud.
ColdOrFlu_slide02Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
The “common cold” gets its name from its sheer frequency — there are more than one billion cases of the cold in the U.S. each year. In fact, it’s likely you’ll have more colds over your lifetime than any other type of illness. Colds can occur throughout the year, but they’re most common in winter and rainy months. And, just like the flu can come from a variety of viruses (there are more than 200 viruses that can cause cold symptoms). You’ve likely heard of rhinoviruses (the name's derived from the Greek word for "nose") which cause anywhere from 30% to 50% of all colds. And, while your mother may have told you to bundle up every time you step outside, the jury is still out on whether frigid temps can actually cause a viral infection. “It all has to do with the host,” Rhonda Susman, a certified infection control practitioner, says. “If you’re compromised by cold weather, it may negatively affect your immunity.”
From Sniffles To Aches — The Symptoms The flu and cold are respiratory illnesses, meaning they directly affect your lungs. And, often, the nose and throat, too. With the flu, symptoms come on strong relatively quickly. It can take as little as one day after contracting the virus to start noticing signs, though symptoms usually appear two to three days after.
Early stages of the flu may bring on aches and pains (which can become severe), headache, chest discomfort and cough, extreme exhaustion, a fever of 102 degrees or more (which can last three to four days), and prolonged fatigue that can last for up to two to three weeks. Some people with the flu may experience cold-like symptoms including stuffy nose, sneezing, and sore throat, too.
Colds, on the other hand, usually come on slowly with minor sniffles or a stuffy nose. Beyond a runny, stuffy, sneezy nose, sore throat, and mild to moderate cough, some people may feel slightly fatigued with a cold.

Symptom Breakdown — Here’s How To Tell The Difference

Fevers are common with the flu and rare for a cold. And, while people who have a cold may feel somewhat fatigued, a flu sufferer is likely to experience extreme exhaustion — like can’t-get-out-of-bed-period exhaustion.

ColdOrFlu_slide03Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
How Long Is This Thing Going To Last? If you’ve got the flu, the majority of symptoms will likely go away after a week. But, fatigue, the biggie, can last up to two weeks. It's also important to consider that you may have infected others a day before your symptoms ever developed (and you might still be contagious up to seven days after).
Most cold symptoms usually disappear within a week. If you’re still stuck with a stuffy nose after that, check in with a doctor to rule out other conditions such as a sinus infection or allergies. People infected with the cold virus are most contagious 24 to 48 hours before they even notice symptoms, Susman says.

Tackling the Beast — How To Treat A Cold Or Flu

Like we said before, there’s no cure for the flu or the common cold. Thankfully there are ways to deal with symptoms. When a cold strikes, over-the-counter cold and cough medicines can ease the brunt of congestion, runny nose, and throat discomfort. Look for antihistamines, decongestants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (i.e. ibuprofen). It’s also a good idea to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

The flu is a little trickier. The CDC says antiviral medications — like Tamiflu — can shorten the duration of the flu. But, these meds aren't sold over the counter, so you’ll need to get a prescription. Also, not all medical professionals agree with the effectiveness of antivirals. “I am from the school of thought that Tamiflu is a major scam, and is so far from foolproof,” Dr. Frank Lipman, integrative and functional medicine physician and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness, says. Bottom line: Lots of rest, plus painkillers to tackle muscle aches, may be the best way to ride out the flu.
When all else fails, studies show a compound in chicken soup called carnosine may fight off a cold or the flu in its early stages.
ColdOrFlu_slide04Illustrated By Sydney Hass.

What To Know For Next Time — How To Prevent The Cold & Flu

While there’s no vaccine for the common cold (yet), the flu is another story. The Centers for Disease Control highly recommend everyone older than six months get a flu shot every year. People at a higher risk for complications that come with the flu (those aged 50 or up, pregnant women, children, those with asthma or other lung conditions) should be extra sure to get inoculated. Though there are plenty of excuses to skip it — you think it's a hassle, you don't like needles, or you worry about side effects — keep in mind the shot protects not only you, but anyone you come in contact with, too. (Speaking of possible side effects: They are generally mild and may include fatigue and soreness at the injection site.) “Even if you didn’t get sick last year, it’s a good idea to get the shot every single year,” Susman says. “And, the thought is that getting immunized every year helps a person build up protection against upcoming flu viruses.”

One easy way to help prevent sickness is to keep your hands away from your face and wash them frequently. Plus, get an adequate amount of sleep, exercise, and eat good-for-you foods that keep the immune system happy. These tried-and-true tips can help you stand up against any gross virus coming your way.
What've you got in your anti-cold-and-flu arsenal? Share in the comments and maybe we'll all make it through the season!

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