by Julia Blank, MD
They’re everywhere these days: the sneezers, the coughers, the folks with runny noses and tissues clutched in hand. The flu is back. Or is it the common cold? How do you tell the difference? How do you avoid catching it—or if you’ve got it, how do you treat it and avoid passing it on?
It’s often hard to differentiate between the common cold and influenza (or “the flu”). They can both start with a scratchy or sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose, and cough. Colds are usually less severe, and last seven to ten days (though they may last longer, especially in children, the elderly, and people with chronic health problems). The flu is typically more severe, often with a high fever (101-104 F) that can last three to four days, chills, headache, body aches, and fatigue. Most flu sufferers recover within a week or two, but elderly and debilitated patients may feel weak and tired long after the other symptoms have resolved.
Sometimes, colds and flu can lead to complications, such as secondary infections of the sinuses (sinusitis) or lungs (bronchitis, pneumonia). They can also result in worsening of underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes. If you have any of these conditions, see “When should you see your doctor,” below.
What causes colds and flu?
In a word: viruses. There are over 250 viruses that can cause the common cold, and dozens that can cause the flu.
Most adults experience two to four colds each year, while children have as many as six to eight. Each year, over 90 million Americans come down with the flu; of these, over 100,000 people end up hospitalized, and between 20,000 and 36,000 people die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2003-2004 flu season hit hard in October, and is expected to run through March.
Cold and flu viruses are transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets through sneezing, coughing, and touching contaminated surfaces like telephones and doorknobs.
How can you lower your risk of infection?