Ahna A. Patterson, PA-C
The common cold and the flu are both incredibly prevalent. It is estimated that people in the United States suffer from more than one billion colds a year1 and between October 2018 and May 2019 alone, the CDC estimates that there were approximately 40 million flu illnesses.2
Both the common cold and the flu are caused by viruses and not by bacteria. Because they are caused by viruses, antibiotics are not helpful in the treatment of either condition. The most common causes of colds include rhinovirus, adenovirus, coronavirus, and enterovirus.3 The common viral strains that cause the flu are Influenza A and B. The flu virus known as H1N1 is a type of Influenza A virus.4
How can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?
Cold and flu symptoms can be similar, making it difficult to know which it is. Cold symptoms are generally not as severe as flu symptoms.Sneezing, runny nose, and sore throat are often associated with a cold, and these symptoms tend to develop gradually. In contrast, flu symptoms develop more suddenly and include body aches, headache, fever, chills, and fatigue.If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, your healthcare provider can perform a rapid flu test to determine whether or not you have the flu.5
Colds are generally managed with over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen; combination cold medications, such as DayQuil or NyQuil; antihistamines, such as Benadryl or Zyrtec; and decongestants, such as Sudafed. These medications alone or in combination can make most cold symptoms tolerable until the cold runs its course.6 Remember when combining medications, that it is important to check each medication’s active ingredients to be sure that the amount you take does not exceed the recommended amount for any particular medication. Tylenol, also known as Acetaminophen, is the most important one to watch out for, and you should limit your intake of Tylenol to no more than 4 grams (4000mg) per day in an adult.
Treatment of flu symptoms also includes the medications listed above which help with inflammation, pain, fever, congestion, cough, and body aches. In addition, when patients are diagnosed with the flu within the first few days that they have symptoms, they are often prescribed an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, which helps to decrease the intensity of their symptoms and the length of time they are sick. This can also help to decrease the amount of days they are out sick from work and can lessen the chances that they develop flu complications like pneumonia.
Flu prevention starts with a flu vaccination. Vaccination can decrease the chances of getting the flu by 40-60% during a flu season. Flu vaccines have also been shown to decrease the chances of hospitalization due to flu-related complications by approximately 40%.Infants, young children, people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma, and the elderly are all considered to be vulnerable individuals and susceptible to more significant flu symptoms and flu-related complications.7 Therefore, it is particularly important for these individuals to receive flu vaccinations each season.
Hand hygiene (good handwashing) is one of the primary steps you can take to avoid the spread of cold and flu viruses. Follow the CDC’s guidance on handwashing.
Other tips for limiting the spread of cold and flu viruses include:8
- Avoid close contact with those that are sick
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands
- Use a tissue to cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, make sure to throw it away immediately, and then wash your hands
- If a tissue is not available, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or elbow, but not into your hand
- Use products that will clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated with flu or cold viruses, such as disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers
- If you have the flu, stay home until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “2018-2019 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates,” https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm
3 Daniel J Sexton and Micah T McClain, “The common cold in adults: Diagnosis and clinical features,” UptoDate, updated February 22, 2018.
4 World Health Organization, “Influenza (Seasonal),” November 6, 2018, https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(seasonal)
6 Daniel J Sexton and Micah T McClain, “The common cold in adults: Treatment and prevention,” UptoDate, updated February 26, 2019.
7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work?,” https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm