Cold or Flu?

The flu season is upon us.  Historically, peak influenza cases in Virginia are seen in February.  Last year, overall influenza infections were at a minimum, partially due to the mild winter weather.

Hopefully, most individuals who are at risk for complications of influenza have already gotten their flu shot.  The vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective.  Elderly individuals, the very young, and those with chronic medical conditions are urged to get a shot each year.  It is also recommended for the general population.

Like other respiratory viruses, influenza is passed from person to person through direct contact, coughing, and sneezing.  Your risk for catching the flu will increase if you are around a lot of different people during the course of each day.  Unfortunately, our work environments and our children’s school and daycare settings make it impossible to avoid airborne infections entirely.  

Since the chance of getting both a common cold virus and a flu virus increases during the winter months, it is important to differentiate between to the two types of infections.  In general, symptoms of the flu are more severe in intensity.

Being respiratory tract infections, cough is a symptom of both cold and flu.  However, when present with a common cold, it is usually a mild, dry and hacking cough.  With the flu, the cough is more persistent and can be quite severe at times.  

A fever with the common cold is rare in adults and older children.  With the flu, it is often high, 102-104, and can persist for up to three to four days.  Along with fever, a headache is common with the flu.  It is usually sudden in onset and can be severe and generalized.

Muscle aches associated with the flu are the norm as well.  They are more intense than with other viral illnesses and are associated with extreme fatigue and weakness.  The fatigue and cough can persist for two to three weeks or more.  A cold usually will present with only mild muscle aching, if any, and mild malaise.

An individual suffering from a cold is more often distressed with a congested and runny nose, a sore throat, and at times, sneezing.  Stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are not usually seen in either colds or the flu, unless another virus is also involved.  People often mistakenly refer to viral infections of the gastrointestinal system (causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) as “the flu” or “stomach flu.”            

The most important step to control the flu is the influenza vaccine, or flu shot.  It is estimated to protect 70 to 90 percent of healthy individuals from influenza. 

Unfortunately, there is no effective vaccine against the common cold due to the vast numbers of different cold viruses in our world.

In regard to the prevention of both colds and flu, common sense health practices are important.  They are: eating a well-balanced, healthy diet; plenty of fluids; getting enough daily rest; regular exercise to keep your body’s systems in shape; and… very important… handwashing.    

Finally, many other remedies have been touted for the treatment and prevention of cold, flu, and other infections.  These include vitamin C, zinc, Echinacea, etc.  Though these may help some individuals, at this time, there is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that these supplements are of definite benefit for all individuals.  

The content in this column is for informational purposes only.  Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment.  Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.


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