At some point in our lives or another, we have suffered from a runny nose or a headache, or what we commonly call a cold. On some occasions, colds can be associated with a mild fever and sweating, in which case it is commonly called the flu. It is often that these two are confused probably because the symptoms are similar. Here we shall discuss these in a bit more detail.
The Common Cold
Firstly, let us discuss about the common cold.
The common cold is a viral infection that is caused by an infection of the upper respiratory tract by a virus called the rhinovirus. However, it can be caused by other viruses such as the influenza virus and the parainfluenza virus, just to name a couple.
How is the common cold transmitted?
The commonest mode of transmission of the rhinovirus is through droplet infection in the air. Patients can transmit the infection from one to another through direct contact with mucus secretions (nasal mucus) or by touching surfaces that infected patients have recently touched. The viruses are surprisingly resistant to the surrounding environment that allows the virus to survive for hours outside the body.
The common cold is extremely common in children, and given how children are unlikely to observe the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, it is likely that they will transmit it to the adults in the house.
In short, the rhinovirus is transmitted through airborne methods and direct contact.
Patients who suffer from the common cold can have a number of vague symptoms such as headaches, mild fever and a runny nose. Patients can also have aches and pains all over along with a reduced appetite and general lethargy. However, if these symptoms are a lot more severe, it is likely the patient has the flu.
It is not necessary to have any diagnostic tests for the common cold – it is easily identifiable from the symptoms alone. In most cases, there is no need to see a doctor even as there are many over the counter medications available to counter the symptoms.
Most cases of common cold need usual nurturing and looking after of symptoms. No specific treatment is required as most cases resolve themselves in a few days. Most patients require supportive treatment such as maintaining adequate hydration. Steam inhalation may help clear a runny nose and allow for easier breathing. Patients with a cold may also have a blocked nose and decongestant sprays may be useful.
Antibiotics are not useful in managing patients with the common cold, as it is caused by a virus. Even antiviral agents are not effective and are rarely prescribed.
Recently, there has been clear guidance issued to patients to prevent the spread of the cold virus. This includes the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ measure which refers to blowing the nose into a tissue, throwing it in the bin straight away and then washing the hands to kill the virus.
The flu refers to infection with the influenza virus. While the symptoms are similar to the common cold, they are usually a lot more severe with an associated high fever. Patients feel a lot more unwell when they suffer from the flu when compared to the cold.
How is the flu virus spread?
The flu virus, just like the common cold is spread through airborne secretions. It can also spread through direct contact with the virus.
Diagnosis and treatment
There are no specific tests required for diagnosing flu. Just like the common cold, treatments are mostly supportive. Simple paracetamol can help treat the fever. However, the main difference between the common cold and the flu is the development of complications following an attack of flu. These are discussed below.
Complications from flu
The flu virus can affect the heart muscle and cause weakening of the heart. It can spread to the chest and cause pneumonia as well. It can also cause ear infections and inflammation of muscles called myositis. These conditions require specific treatments, and on occasion require admission to hospital as well.
The flu vaccine
Getting the flu vaccine has become common practice these days to effectively prevent the flu. It is recommended that patients get the flu vaccine sometime in October as the time when the flu occurs is between October to April or May. The vaccine is administered as an injection into the muscle and stimulates production of antibodies against the flu virus.
Following administration of the flu vaccine, patients can feel a bit unwell, but this is normal. While the vaccine does provide excellent protection, patients can still get the flu but attacks may not be as severe as what they would experience had they not got the vaccine.
Flu vaccines are now recommended for children over the age of 6 months till 18 years and for patients over the age of 50. This is mostly because this group is more likely to develop complications from the flu virus especially if it is a severe infection. They should also be offered to patients who are carers for vulnerable individuals or children.
The cold and flu are common clinical conditions that almost everyone experiences in their lives one time or another. Symptoms can affect daily life of patients and can take a few days to resolve. Diagnosis is mostly clinical and treatments available include supportive measures and specialist treatments in case of complications. The flu vaccine can effectively prevent attacks of flu and are required every year to ensure patients remain clear from this condition.