With the arrival of the monsoon season and students returning to school, cases of common cold and flu (influenza) are on the rise. However, it can be hard to distinguish between the two viral respiratory illnesses, with both causing similar, often overlapping symptoms.
Dr Agam Vora, Chest Physician, Advanced Multi Specialty Hospitals, Vile Parle (West). Assoc. Hon. & In-Charge, Department of Chest & TB, Dr R.N. Cooper Municipal General Hospital said, “
With seasonal changes and sudden shifts in the weather during the monsoon season, we witness a rise of various viral infections ranging from the flu to common cold. It is especially important to recognize the differences across conditions to effectively treat them and speed up the process of recovery. Further, to avoid these seasonal infections, understanding and adopting preventive measures are also important to keep people healthy and protected.”
Being able to quickly recognize whether one’s illness is a cold or the flu is key so individuals can seek the appropriate medical help they need. Thankfully, there are a few notable differences to keep in mind to distinguish the two.
Here are four key differences between a cold and the flu:
- While both spread easily from person to person through the air, personal contact and bodily discharge (like saliva or from fluids from coughing or sneezing), they are caused by different viruses. The flu is caused by different strains or types of the influenza virus specifically, while a common cold can be derived from multiple viruses, the most common one being rhinovirus.1 To understand if an individual is experiencing the flu, consulting a doctor is recommended. They will assess one’s symptoms and might recommend getting tested to determine the nature of the virus.
- Symptoms common to both conditions include body aches, fatigue, headache, sore throat, cough and nasal congestion or a runny or stuffy nose. 2 However, the flu typically involves high grade fever as well (often 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), unlike a cold. Another distinguishing symptom is chills (shaking or shivering), which are common with influenza but not with colds. And overall, cold symptoms are usually milder than flu symptoms.
- There are also differences in the onset of conditions, with a cold’s symptoms starting more gradually, while the flu’s symptoms begin more abruptly and rapidly escalate. Cold symptoms tend to improve after a week. In the case of the flu, it can gradually improve over two to five days, but effects can also last over a week.
- The flu can also lead to more serious complications when compared to a cold. Influenza can become a serious condition leading to hospitalization, especially amongst at-risk individuals with comorbidities, including lung or heart problems, diabetes or hypertension.3,4,5 Lung infections or pneumonia are also associated complications.6
Understanding these differences is vital to guide needed care. At the same time, with the onset of this year’s flu season, it is especially important to remember that there are preventive measures that can be taken. Thus, recognizing the steps to avoid these conditions this season can also be helpful.
As per the WHO, vaccination is one of the key steps to prevent flu infections. This is recommended annually as immune protection from the flu shot can decline over time. Annual shots, in accordance with WHO recommendations, enhance protection against the evolving influenza virus, which changes its structure every year. Meanwhile, there is no vaccine against the common cold, but maintaining good hygiene is key to avoiding it.
Dr Jejoe Karankumar, Director, Medical Affairs at Abbott said, “
By educating the population on the need for a range of preventive measures against respiratory illnesses, including vaccination, we can empower people to protect themselves and others from such conditions. This can prevent unnecessary complications down the line, particularly for children, the elderly and individuals with underlying conditions.”
Beyond influenza vaccination, other common preventive measures for both the flu and the common cold include washing hands more often (for at least 20 seconds), limiting close contact with anyone having cold or flu symptoms, and avoiding touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Take care to try and avoid infection this season, but also know the warning signs so you can seek timely care appropriately.