Cold Vs. Flu, What’s The Difference?

The fall and winter seasons can be especially tough, not just because of cold weather. During that time of year, both the cold and flu tend to be particularly intense. Roughly 200,000 Americans are hospitalized every year due to flu-related illnesses. Meanwhile, roughly five to 20% of the US population will catch the flu every year. While not typically as dangerous, the cold is another virus that often sickens adults and children, with adults catching 2-3 colds a year and children even more. While both viruses share similar symptoms, preventative treatment methods aren’t always the same.

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Colds, symptoms, and preventative tips

The common cold usually lasts seven to 10 days but can have prolonged exposure in people with immunocompromised symptoms or individuals with respiratory conditions. The most common symptoms are sore throat, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, body aches, and headaches. Unlike the flu virus, there is no vaccine to protect against catching colds. Alternatively, people are encouraged to practice good hygiene as cold viruses are spread by contacting infected people. In particular, wash hands thoroughly with soap and for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching the face, and frequently disinfect shared surfaces.

The flu, symptoms, and preventative tips

Unlike the cold, the flu usually feels as if the symptoms appear suddenly and with more force. Common flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, headache, soreness, muscle aches, cough, and congestion. While the symptoms usually improve within two to five days of appearing, many people may continue to feel drained for up to a week or more after the initial onset. The most telling sign that a person is suffering from the flu rather than a cold is the presence of fever and a general feeling of exhaustion. Along with proper handwashing and hygiene, one of the best ways to avoid catching the flu or having more severe symptoms is by getting the annual flu vaccine.

Treating a cold or flu at home

Being sick is low on any person’s list of enjoyable activities. But for most people, both colds and the flu can often be treated at home without a trip to the hospital. Rather than risking getting other people sick, a cold or flu person should stay home. Rest is one of the best ways to aid the body in fighting a viral infection. Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water and fluids is also essential with both illnesses. Options include soups like chicken soup, herbal teas and fresh juices. Saltwater gargles or adding honey into teas, or consuming alone can aid in soothing sore throats. Consider incorporating zinc either through foods or as a supplement to help shorten bouts of illness.

When to call the doctor

While colds and flu are relatively common illnesses that usually respond well to at-home treatment, some individuals will have more adverse reactions. In particular, people with compromised immune systems or underlying respiratory conditions may be at a higher risk of having prolonged and more severe symptoms. If a cold or flu lasts for more than a week or more serious symptoms like recurring fever, weakness, lightheadedness, sinus pain, and shortness of breath are present, seek immediate medical help.