There exists a creature that is capable of entering our very cells, changing the biological machinery within to manufacture more of itself. It does this over and over, converting cell after vital cell, damaging each as they burst forth in a flood of replicated organisms. And the worst part? We have few ways of fighting them.
This creature is a virus.
And of all of the terrible maladies caused by viruses, two stand out, having been documented misery-makers since the dawn of time—the common cold, and the flu.
Viruses spread more easily in the winter months due to our closer proximity to others as we huddle inside, by dry air that viruses favor, and by our own biological responses to the cold that weaken our natural defenses. Because of this, we can accurately label fall and winter the cold and flu season.
Despite their initially similar symptoms, the viruses that cause colds and flus are very different, and since one can be more life-threatening than the other, you need to know how to tell that difference. Let’s look at how you can do that.
The Common Cold
The common cold is caused by a group of over 200 viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract, primarily affecting the nose and throat, and is the most commonly occurring disease amongst humankind—you’re almost certain to contract it at least once a year. It’s also one of the oldest documented diseases, with the ancient Egyptians complaining about it as early as the 16th century BCE.
This virus is transmitted through the air when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, through direct contact with infected body fluids, which can be deposited on surfaces and—more commonly—hands. The virus can survive for up to 18 hours outside of the body before being picked up
A cold is not serious, and will rarely, if ever, be dangerous to a healthy adult. The symptoms will come on slowly, beginning with a sense of fatigue and a sore throat, which will then subside over the couple of days. Nasal symptoms such as congestion, a runny nose, and cough will occur around the 4th and 5th days. Fever is unlikely, although it will sometimes occur in children.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s likely you have the cold.
Symptoms peak about 4 days after exposure, usually resolving within 10 days at most, but some victims will develop a post-viral cough that can linger for up to 25 more days.
There is no cure for the cold, nor is there a vaccine—the disease must be avoided, and when it is caught, endured. While there are no medications that can shorten the duration of the disease, its symptoms can be managed through adequate rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking anti-inflammatory pain medications such as ibuprofen. Although studies have been inconclusive, taking a zinc supplement at the outset of the illness may suppress the worst of the symptoms.
The most effective precautions against catching a cold include frequent hand washing, avoiding touching of the face, and staying away from crowded situations.
Influenza, also known as the flu, is caused by the influenza virus, and unlike the cold, can be a seriously dangerous disease.
Like a cold, the opening act of the flu is often fatigue, coughing, and sometimes nasal congestion as it infects the upper respiratory tract.
If things were to end here, you’d be just fine—it would just be a cold. But the flu doesn’t stop here. It keeps going.
Unlike a cold, the flu comes on abruptly. A fever and chills are usually the first and most obvious indicator that you have the flu rather than a cold. Temperatures can range from 100 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit.
And then begin what many consider to be the most unpleasant aspect of the flu—the body aches, which are worst in the back and legs. Many people are so riddled with aches and pains that they are confined to the bed while infected.
Aside from these, victims may experience headaches, watery eyes, sneezing, and rashes. Rarely, some may experience diarrhea.
The flu is dangerous, especially to children, the elderly, and to those with compromised immune systems—all of whom should seek medical care at the onset of symptoms. Fevers of 103 and over can be extremely dangerous for even healthy individuals, and deadly pneumonia can develop as a secondary infection in some cases. Worldwide, the flu claims hundreds of thousands of lives a year.
The flu tends to last longer than a cold, and its severe symptoms can persist for two weeks. A few antiviral medications have been developed to fight the flu and shorten its duration, but it is important to catch the disease in its early stages. Doctors make use of neuraminidase inhibitors and M2 inhibitors to treat the flu—talk to your doctor if you think you might be developing the flu, and it’s likely that he or she will be able to help you.
As is the case with all viruses, though, prevention is the key, and the precautions are the same as with the common cold—hygiene and, if possible during outbreaks, isolation.
Know the Difference
The biggest difference between these two common viral infections is, as we’ve learned, the suddenness of the symptoms’ onset, and the presence of fever and chills. The symptoms of the flu are much more severe than those of a cold, and tend to keep us home from work and school. You can use this handy chart to help you tell if you have a cold or the flu.
If you think you have the flu, see your doctor—even if you’re otherwise healthy. But be especially vigilant for persistent fever and coughing, painful swallowing, and extreme congestion and headaches. These symptoms can indicate a severe infection. Some symptoms require emergency treatment, namely, severe chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and confusion.
This cold and flu season, remain vigilant, keep hygiene in mind, and use these tips to differentiate between these two common diseases.