The Truth About Colds, the Flu and How to Prevent Them

Dr. Jane Leonard

It's that time of year. You know, when it's like playing Russian roulette every time you sit down on public transport, and yep, just your luck you sat next to a sniffler. The common cold and its more boisterous cousin, the flu, are rife at this time of year, ready to strike you down when you least expect it. And with the Christmas holidays just around the corner, our main aim is, of course, to stay well. 

So what exactly are the common cold and flu? They're both viral infections that share similar symptoms. It's important to realise that the flu is not "a bad cold." Although they are both viral in nature, different viruses cause them, which means there are key differences you should know about.

There are more than 200 viruses that cause the common cold, but only three viruses that cause the flu. There are different strains of the flu virus, hence why the flu vaccine needs to be modified every year to specifically target the most prevalent strain. Want to know how to avoid a cold or—worse—the flu? And how to ease the symptoms if and when they do strike? Of course you do, so keep scrolling for my doctor-approved plan of action.

What's The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

Cold symptoms:

  • Runny nose (starts with clear mucus and then turns to a darker mucus as the infection goes on)
  • Blocked nose
  • Mild fever
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing

Flu symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Sweating and shivering
  • Muscle aches
  • Weakness, no energy

The flu can also cause sneezing, a runny nose and a cough, which are also the typical symptoms of a cold. However, it is the high fever, the muscle aches and the severe weakness and fatigue that are characteristic of the flu, rather than the common cold.

Who is at risk?

It is very common to catch a cold during the winter months. It is much less common to catch the flu (thankfully!). The people who are more at risk of developing the symptoms of the flu include:

  • People over age 65
  • People with a lowered immunity; this includes people who have a chronic medical condition such as asthma, diabetes, kidney, lung and heart disease.
  • Pregnant woman

Colds and the flu are viral; they're not bacterial infections. For this reason, antibiotics are not prescribed by doctors, as they will not effectively treat the underlying cause.

Preventing Colds and the Flu

The cold and flu viruses are contained in water droplets that are spread into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets then land on surfaces, food or people and are very easily spread.

You don’t need to arm yourself with an alcohol gel, but simple steps can be taken to avoid the spread:

  • Wash your hands or carry an antibacterial hand gel.
  • Sneeze into a tissue and throw it away immediately.
  • Regularly wipe down surfaces that may harbour the virus, such as door handles and computer keyboards.

How to get better

So what if you can't dodge the dreaded lurgy? Rest and relaxation are the best ways to help your body recover from a cold or the flu. Other simple remedies include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Taking acetaminophen or Ibuprofen to help relieve fever and discomfort caused by a sore throat, headache or muscle aches.
  • Taking decongestants to help relieve a blocked nose and sinuses.
  • Eating healthy, nutrient-rich foods.
  • Using a throat spray like Difflam, which contains a mild local anaesthetic, to help ease the pain of a sore throat.

Due to the increased strain placed on the immune system caused by the influenza virus, the body is more at risk of severe complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis. In short, you need plenty of R and R if you have the flu. If your symptoms are getting worse rather than better and you develop new symptoms such as worsening cough, shortness of breath, wheezing or chest pains it is essential to seek medical attention. Your symptoms can be fully assessed and appropriate treatment started.

Stock up on Vitamin C

The role of vitamin C has been studied for many years as a treatment for cold and flu but the results have been inconsistent. It was found that vitamin C did not prevent people developing a cold or flu, but supplementing with it whilst suffering the symptoms did help reduce the severity of the cold or flu in some cases.

On balance, taking vitamin C in the form of a supplement in conjunction with a balanced diet will help support your body while it fights the infection, although it may not necessarily speed up your recovery.

in summary

  • Cold and flu are both viral infections.
  • They are NOT the same.
  • Although the symptoms are similar, cold and flu are caused by different viruses.
  • The flu is a more severe infection than a cold.
  • Antibiotics are not useful in treating the cold and flu, as they are not bacterial infections.
  • Simple over-the-counter treatments are effective and must be combined with adequate supplements to help support your body in fighting the infection.

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