Cold or Flu: What’s the Difference?

Health, Home & Family
on October 17, 2004

Knowing the difference between colds and flu and how they’re spread can help you stay healthy this winter.

“Both colds and flu are caused by viruses,” says Dr. Kevin Pellosie, executive medical director for the Lake County Health Department in Eustis, Fla. (pop. 15,106). “But the viruses and symptoms of cold and flu are different.”

A cold usually includes a stuffy nose, sore throat, mild fever and sneezing, while symptoms of the flu include tiredness, a fever of 102 degrees and higher, headache, and major aches and pains. Both flu and colds can cause coughing. Colds usually last three to seven days; the flu can hang around longer.

An ounce of prevention

Washing your hands often is the No. 1 key to avoiding colds and flu. But it takes more than a quick splash to do the job right.

“Use hot water and soap,” Dr. Pellosie advises. “Scrub while singing Happy Birthday to yourself. That’s about the right length of time to wash away viruses.”

Moist wipes, sprays and soaps promising to kill bacteria are fine, he says, when soap and water aren’t available, but they don’t work as well as hand-washing. Innovative new products, such as tissues that trap and kill cold and flu viruses, also may help to stop colds and flu from spreading.

To avoid spreading colds and flu, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze and wash your hands often. Throw tissues away after a single use and stay away from others as much as possible while you’re ill, especially if you have a fever.

An annual flu shot is the single most important thing people can do to protect themselves against the most common strains of flu, says Dorothy Voght, a public health nurse in Del Rio, Texas (pop. 34,611). She says it’s especially important for children ages 6 to 24 months, senior citizens, people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, those who have trouble fighting off infection and people who live in the same household as those in high-risk groups.

The flu season typically starts in late fall. It takes about two weeks after getting a flu shot for the body to build up resistance, so get your shot as soon as vaccine is available.

Bouncing back

While antibiotics can work wonders to fight bacterial infections, they’re useless against colds and flu, says Missy Pangallo, a nurse practitioner with the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department in Florence, Ky. (pop. 23,551). “That’s because antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses,” she says, advising against using antibiotics unless your doctor thinks your cold or flu has led to a bacterial infection.

The best treatment is resting under a cool-mist vaporizer, drinking plenty of fluids and treating symptoms with over-the-counter medication. However, Pangallo cautions against giving children or teenagers aspirin or medications called “salicylates” while they have cold or flu symptoms because they can increase the risk of a rare, and sometime fatal, condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Once you’ve caught a cold or the flu, your body’s immune system usually can fight it. If you know you’ve been exposed to the flu in the past day or two, your doctor may prescribe a new product that can shorten the length of time you’re sick with the flu, but only by a few days.

“If your symptoms last a long time or get worse, you should see a doctor,” Pangallo says. Indications that you need to see a doctor include being sick to your stomach, vomiting, having a high fever or shaking chills, chest pain, or coughing with thick yellow-green mucus.

Other colds and flu preventions, according to the Center for Disease Control:

• Avoid people who are already sick.

• Stay out of crowds when possible.

• Don’t touch your nose, eyes or mouth with your hands.

• Discard or disinfect toothbrushes.

• Use disposable drinking cups, especially in the bathroom, to avoid spreading the virus.

• Get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet and exercising regularly.