Colds and Flu: Overview and More

The words "cold" and "flu" are sometimes used interchangeably when in fact they are completely different. Both cause breathing problems that can make you feel very bad, but differ in their causes, course, severity, and treatment.

The common cold is the most common illness in the United States and also the most common reason for visiting a doctor. On average, American adults get two to four colds a year and children six to ten. The CDC estimates that 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. It can be a very serious infection that kills thousands of people each year.

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Cold and flu symptoms

Cold and flu symptoms have a few things in common, but there are significant differences. Flu symptoms are more severe and pronounced.

Cold symptoms

Cold symptoms usually last seven to 10 days . Symptoms start out mild and then gradually get worse over the next few days. While a cold can make you feel unwell, it is generally not severe enough to interfere with your daily activities.

Common symptoms include:

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Throat pain
  • Feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Fever (rare, more common in children)

If your symptoms are very different from those listed above, you probably have a different condition or infection.

Flu symptoms

Flu symptoms usually appear suddenly and quickly. Many people describe it as being hit by a truck.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • Hot
  • Headache
  • Body pain
  • Exhausted
  • Cough
  • Throat pain
  • Mild Nasal Congestion: Nasal congestion or runny nose.
  • Vomiting and / or diarrhea (rare in adults, more common in children)


Both colds and the flu are caused by viruses. They are spread through the air as droplets when coughing and sneezing, coming into contact with saliva, and touching contaminated surfaces.

Causes of the common cold

More than 200 different viruses can cause colds . Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses, but they can also be caused by coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza, and others. Although immunity to each cold virus often develops after contracting it, there is always another cold virus waiting to develop similar symptoms.

Causes of influenza

Influenza is caused by the influenza virus. There are many strains of influenza, and it often mutates to create new subtypes and variants. Although there are three main types of influenza (A, B, and C), only influenza A and B cause symptoms of seasonal influenza.

People of any age can get the flu. However, those in high-risk groups are more likely to develop serious complications. These include pregnant women, the elderly, children under the age of 5, and people with chronic conditions such as heart disease, asthma, or diabetes .


Cold diagnosis

Most people don't see a doctor with a cold diagnosis. Even if you do, it will be diagnosed based on your symptoms and physical exam rather than specialized tests, although some tests may be done to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

Influenza diagnosis

If you suspect you have the flu, seeking medical attention early can help. There are tests that your healthcare provider can perform to determine if your symptoms are caused by the flu. It's especially important to recognize flu-like symptoms and report it to your doctor within the first 24 hours. People at high risk for complications from the flu should begin treatment as soon as possible to prevent serious symptoms, complications, or hospitalizations. Before you get sick, talk with your doctor to have a plan for dealing with flu symptoms.

If you have severe cold or flu symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, uncontrolled coughing, or high fever, you should see your doctor. Also see your doctor if you feel better but then get sick again and symptoms get worse. This is a sign of a secondary infection such as pneumonia.

Watch out

Time is the only sure "cure" for colds and flu. There are drug-free ways to make you feel better, like turning off the humidifier, flushing your sinuses with saline, drinking a very clean liquid, and getting some more rest .

Over-the-counter cold medicines can help relieve symptoms. Taking pain relievers / fever reducers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or motrin (ibuprofen) can help treat fever and many aches and pains associated with the flu. Decongestants and expectorants can help with coughs and congestion from colds and flu.

Although cold medications can be used to relieve symptoms in adults and older children, they are not recommended for children under 6 years of age. Check with your pediatrician.

For the flu , antiviral medications can shorten the duration of the illness and protect you if you do get the flu. These medications are only available by prescription, so you will need to see your doctor to obtain them. Also, they are only really effective if they are started within the first 48 hours after symptoms start. If you wait until the third or fourth day of illness, it is unlikely that anything will change.

Because colds and flu are viral, they cannot be treated with antibiotics . It is important to never take unnecessary antibiotics, as this has led to the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria that are becoming a major health problem around the world .

The flu vaccine is generally available in the United States from August or September. Provides protection against flu strains that researchers believe are most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season. However, it is not 100% effective because the flu virus mutates so frequently. While the main goal of the flu shot is to keep you away from the flu, it can also reduce the course and severity of the flu if you do get it .

Get the word of drug information

Nobody is healthy all the time. Even the healthiest person catches a cold from time to time. These microbes are all around us and they are unavoidable. However, knowing what to expect and what to do in case of illness will help you recover as quickly as possible.

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