Ethos Ho, BSc Pharm Student
It’s That Time of the Year Again…
With the end of summer and the start of the fall season, the notorious common cold and flu viruses will soon be a common part of our lives. These viruses cause many missed days at work or school and many visits to the doctor’s office. The common cold, also known as viral rhinitis, and flu are viral infections that produce similar symptoms; however, there are certain distinctions between them that may affect treatment choices. One thing is certain though: because these are viral infections, antibiotics will not treat the common cold or flu! Additionally, symptoms caused by these viruses can often be managed with over-the-counter products. Why not stay home to rest and recover instead of waiting long hours at the doctor’s office? Today’s article is going to focus on the signs and symptoms of the common cold and flu, as well as some recommended strategies for prevention and symptomatic treatment.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, where strategies for prevention and treatment will be discussed!
The Rhino and Influenza Viruses1,2,3
The rhino and influenza viruses are responsible for causing much grief and mischief during the long and cold winter months. Both viruses cause infection in the upper respiratory tract, which typically manifests as similar symptoms including cough and runny nose. Rhinoviruses are found to be the most common cause of the common cold in all age groups, while the influenza A and/or influenza B viruses are responsible for causing the flu.
What’s the Difference Between the Common Cold and the Flu?1,2,3
Most of the symptoms of the common cold and flu are similar; however, there are some subtle differences between the two.
Symptoms of the common cold generally peak at 1-3 days and last a total of 7-10 days, although they can occasionally persist for three weeks. Those affected by the common cold can experience a sore throat, nasal congestion, rhinorrhea (runny nose), sneezing, cough, low-grade fever, malaise, and headache. Fever is common in children, but rare and mild in adults. Rhinovirus infections typically start with a sore throat, which is then accompanied by nasal stuffiness and discharge, sneezing, and coughing.
Symptoms of the flu can last up to 10 days and range from mild to severe, with a typically abrupt onset. Common symptoms of influenza include myalgias (muscle aches), fever, chills, and sore throat. Unlike the common cold, nasal congestion is rare; also, the flu virus usually causes a non-productive cough (dry cough) compared to a productive cough (wet cough) seen in the common cold.
As you can see, rhinoviruses tend to cause a more acute and mild illness compared to influenza viruses. As well, the onset of the flu is usually more abrupt than the common cold, with certain distinguishing features such as muscle aches, chills, and a dry cough.
The Bottom Line
The common cold and the flu are viral infections that cause a significant burden to individuals during the fall and winter months. Although symptoms are similar for both infections, the common cold is generally milder compared to the flu. Symptoms of the flu can range from mild to severe and have a typically abrupt onset that is accompanied by muscle aches, chills, and a dry cough as hallmark features. Since these are viral infections, antibiotics are ineffective for the treatment of the common cold and flu. Stay tuned for part 2, where prevention and treatment strategies will be discussed!
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- Allan, G., & Arroll, B. (2014). Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 186(3), 190-199. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.121442
- Heikkinen, T., & Järvinen, A. (2003). The common cold. The Lancet, 361(9351), 51-59. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(03)12162-9