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The common cold is a term used to describe viral infections of the upper respiratory tract (throat and sinuses). People with the common cold might experience stuffy/runny nose, sneezing, cough, congestion, and fever. Even though the common cold is a consistently viral infection, it is not always caused by the same virus, making vaccinations and eradication nearly impossible. The flu is a similar but more severe respiratory infection. It affects your lungs as well as your nose and throat, often causing more severe symptoms. It is important to note that “the flu” is different from “the stomach flu”, which is a viral infection that more directly targets the gastrointestinal tract and can result in severe vomiting and diarrhea.
Many times, a cold or flu is accompanied by an acute cough that typically goes away after two to three weeks. A cough, an “expelling” of air from your lungs, is a normal way to keep your throat and airways clear. Coughs can be either dry or productive (meaning they bring up mucus). If your cough lasts longer than three weeks or grows worse, you should see a doctor. It may be a sign of a more serious condition.
The cold is caused most often by a highly contagious virus called the rhinovirus. However, more than 100 other viruses may also cause a cold. The flu is cause by a number of highly contagious viruses, though each year there is typically a dominant strain of virus that affects the most people. Cold viruses and Flu viruses can spread through droplets in the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or talks, though hand-to-hand contact with someone who is ill, or by sharing contaminated objects such as utensils, towels, toys or telephones. Touching your eyes, nose, and mouth after coming into contact with the virus can increase your chances of catching the cold or flu.
The following factors may increase your risks of catching a cold or the flu:
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tests are of no use in diagnosing the common cold. Symptoms, which are usually obvious, include muscle aches, fatigue, headaches and high fever (up to 104 F). Besides these, patients can suffer a cough, which is usually dry and can be severe, as well as a runny nose and sore throat. There are several types of diagnostic flu tests. According to the National Center for Disease Control (CDC), the most common are “rapid influenza diagnostic tests”. These tests can provide results in 30 minutes or less, however they may not always give accurate results. In addition to rapid tests, there are several more accurate and sensitive flu tests available that must be performed in specialized laboratories, such as those found in hospitals or state public health laboratories. All of these tests require that a health care provider swipe the inside of your nose or the back of your throat with a swab and then send the swab for testing. These tests do not require a blood sample. Typically, your physician will give you a flu diagnosis based on your report of symptoms and a ruling out of other common infections.
Symptoms of the common cold typically last one to two weeks and go away on their own. Only very rarely are bodies unable to fight off the cold virus without intervention. Typically, this occurs in babies, the elderly, or chronically ill patients (especially those with immune disorders). Symptoms include:
Flu symptoms typically develop one to two days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms usually go away in four to five days, but some people can have lingering coughs and feelings of illness for more than two weeks. The flu can occasionally worsen other health problems or cause complications in the elderly, pediatric, or immuno-compromised patients. The onset of flu symptoms is usually abrupt and severe. Symptoms include:
Children who get the flu may also experience vomiting, diarrhea, and ear infections in addition to the other symptoms.
The prognosis for the common cold is very good, according to experts. Although it can’t be cured, the common cold will, for most people, simply run its course and be gone within seven to ten days. There are some possible complications, though, including ear infections or sinusitis. People who already have respiratory disease such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) may find that their illnesses are aggravated by a cold.
The prognosis for flu is more serious than that for cold. Most people will recover in a week or two (a slightly longer recovery time than that of the common cold). But it can worsen chronic respiratory problems, and in extreme cases may lead to congestive heart failure, in which the heart pumps blood at a lower – than – normal rate.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), you should take these steps while you have a cold:
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends the following measures when you have the flu:
There are no screening procedures for the common cold. Symptoms, which are usually obvious, include muscle aches, fatigue, headaches and high fever (up to 104 F).
There are no screening procedure for the flu since symptoms are typically obvious and have a fast – onset. Doctors may recommend the flu shot to patients who they feel are at an increased risk for catching the flu.
Because colds and flus are so easily transmitted, avoid close contact with anyone who is ill. Hands are one of the primary modes of cold and flu transfer. The CDC offers a step – by – step guide for proper hand hygiene during flu season:
You should wash your hands at the following times:
If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer. Use a product that has at least 60 percent alcohol. Rub the sanitizer over your hands and between your fingers until your hand is dry. Sanitizers can help reduce the number of germs, but will not eliminate germs entirely. Sanitizers can also help create more resistant bacteria, so they should be used sparingly when possible.
For protection against the flu, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says that everyone should get an annual flu vaccine beginning at six months old. There are also some antiviral medications you can take if you’re healthy but have been exposed to a person with the flu. These medications are prescription pills, liquids, or inhalers. The HHS says there are four antiviral drugs approved for treating the flu in the United States – oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza), amantadine (Symmetrel), and rimantadine (Flumadine). According to HHS figures, antiviral drugs are 70 percent to 90 percent effective in preventing flu. Ask your doctor if you think you need antiviral drugs.
According to the National Library of Medicine (NLM), cold medicines can treat symptoms, making you feel better, but they don’t shorten a cold. However, the NLM says, taking zinc supplements within the first 24 hours of a cold may reduce symptoms and shorten it. Ask your doctor about which cold medicines are safest for your child, even if the medicine is labeled for children. The main types of cold medicine include:
Decongestants. Decongestants shrink swollen nasal passages, making it easier to breathe. Brand names include:
Decongestants shouldn’t be used by people who have high blood pressure unless they are under a doctor’s supervision.
Antihistamines work by blocking the release of histamines during an allergic reaction. (A histamine is a substance released during an allergy reaction that makes blood vessels more vulnerable to the allergen.) Some antihistamines can induce drowsiness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, antihistamines that tend to cause drowsiness include:
The following antihistamines are less likely to cause drowsiness:
Additionally, there are antihistamine/decongestant combinations such as Allerest and Actifed.
Nasal sprays can also relieve stuffy noses. The NLM cautions against the use of OTC nasal sprays for longer than three days on and three days off unless you are told otherwise by your doctor, because overusing them may lead to you building up a resistance to them that requires greater amounts for them to be effective. OTC nasal sprays include:
You can also get relief by using a simple OTC saline (salt) spray.
Antiviral medications. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there are four approved prescription antiviral medicines. They are available in pills, liquids and inhalers and are used to prevent or treat flu viruses. The following antiviral medications are approved for adults and children one year or older:
OTC remedies like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can reduce pain and fever. Treatment for the flu should be given within the first 48 hours of symptoms.
If your cold or flu is accompanied by a cough, the following medications may help you:
Expectorants. Cough medicines that are designed to break up mucus, suppress coughs or soothe throats. The ingredient guaifenesin, which loosens mucus, is found in OTC medicines such as Robitussin. (Experts advise drinking lots of fluids if you take this kind of medicine.) Other liquid expectorants act via the ingredient dextromethorphan. (These include Vicks 44 and Delsym.)
Cough Suppressants: These are classified as antitussives, meaning they suppress (block) coughing. These medicines should be used, experts say, for a dry cough, not for a productive cough – i.e. one that produces mucus. Cough suppressants include Delsym Cough Suppressant and Mucinex DM.
Throat soothers. Throat lozenges can help lessen the discomfort of a sore throat. They include Halls, Cepacol and Chloraseptic.
Although there are several well – known “natural” treatments that are said to help cold sufferers, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health, cautious that there isn’t much scientific evidence to back up the claims. Here’s what the NCCAM has to say about these
Zinc. If taken orally, zinc can help treat colds, but may also cause side effects (such as nausea and gastrointestinal symptoms) and interact badly with medicines, including antibiotics and penicillamine (a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis). Used over a long period of time at a high dosage, it can also cause copper deficiency. Zinc is available in oral form (e.g., lozenges, tablets, syrup) and intranasal (e.g., swabs and gels). The NCCAM says that a 2011 analysis of clinical trials found that oral zinc can help reduce length and severity of colds when it’s taken within 24 hours after the onset of symptoms. The study also found that the number of colds in children could be reduced if they took it at low doses for at least five months. But beware of intranasal zinc, which has been linked to an irreversible loss of the sense of smell. Intranasal zinc shouldn’t be used at all, the NCCAM says. Talk to your health care practitioner about whether zinc is right for you or if you are planning on giving it to a child.
Vitamin C. No matter what you’ve heard, the NCCAM says Vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds and only slightly reduces a cold’s duration and severity. In 2010, the NCCAM says, a review of literature did find that taking vitamin C regularly (without having a cold) does result in a small improvement in symptoms. But in studies in which people took vitamin C only after they god a cold, there was no improvement in symptoms. Vitamin C is generally considered safe, but megadoses can lead to nausea and diarrhea.
Echinacea. Although widely promoted remedy, the herbal supplement echinacea hasn’t been sufficiently proven to prevent or treat colds. What’s more, the NCCAM says, echinacea products vary widely; they can contain different parts and preparations of the echinacea plant. There is limited evidence that some, though not all, echinacea preparations may be helpful in treating adult colds. There are only inconsistent results of echinacea’s effects on children. There haven’t been many side effects reported, the NCCAM says, although some people can have an allergic reaction. Children who took part in one echinacea trial showed an increased risk of developing rashes.
Probiotics The NCCAM says there’s little evidence to prove that probiotics, a “good” bacteria, can help prevent colds. Probiotics are available as dietary supplements and in yogurts. They are also available in suppositories in creams. There’s still not much known about taking them for long periods of time. The NCCAM says that while there appear to be only mild gastrointestinal side effects such as gas, people with serious health problems shouldn’t use probiotics without being monitored by a health-care provider.
According to the NCCAM, there is no evidence that any alternative treatment is effective against the flu.
The Palo Alto Foundation lists the following reasons to contact a doctor if you have a cold or the flu:
Here are some questions to ask your doctor:
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