Viral Illnesses That Spread Easily
The common cold is true to its name: In the United States, there are millions of cases of the cold every year.1 It’s the primary reason kids stay home from school and adults miss work.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child has about eight to ten colds in the first several years of her life.
Thankfully, though, for most people this viral illness only causes minor discomfort and just a little bit of down time, since most colds clear up within seven to ten days.
Influenza (the flu), on the other hand, is a more severe viral illness that affects the sinuses, throat, and lungs.
It can be mild or severe, and it may even lead to death for those with weaker immune systems (the very young, the very old, those with chronic disease or who are immune compromised).
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Cold vs. Flu
Fever: A fever happens rarely with a cold, but it is usually present with the flu.
Aches: Slight aches and pains occur with a cold, but severe aches and pains occur with the flu.
Chills: Chills rarely occur with a cold, but they are common with the flu.
Tiredness: Slight to moderate levels of tiredness occur with a cold, but moderate to severe levels of tiredness occur with the flu.
Onset: A cold's onset takes place over a few days, but the flu's onset is sudden.
Coughing: A cold often has a mucus-producing cough, but the flu generally has a dry cough without mucus.
Sneezing: Sneezing is common with a cold, but it is not typical with the flu.
Stuffy Nose: A stuffy nose is common with a cold, but it is not typical with the flu.
Headache: A headache is common with a cold, but it is not common with the flu.
What is the Common Cold?
The common cold can be caused by more than 200 different viruses, which easily spread in the air and through close contact. According to the CDC, rhinovirus is the most common type of virus that causes colds.
Most people easily recognize cold symptoms. Colds generally begin with a sore throat and runny nose. You’ll also notice:
- Stuffy nose
- A mild fever in children (101° F - 102° F)
- Mild achiness
- Watery eyes
Symptoms generally peak within one to two days, but can linger for up to two weeks.
Diagnosing a Cold
Colds are generally diagnosed by observing symptoms. Tests to identify the virus are not necessary.
Treating a Cold
Because colds are viral illnesses, they cannot be treated with antibiotics. There are a number of things, though, that can help relieve symptoms:
- Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
- Use saline spray or a nasal rinse.
- For a sore throat, gargle warm salt water.
- Use a cool mist vaporizer / humidifier.
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help ease aches and reduce fever. Before starting a new medication, consult your healthcare provider to determine if taking these medications are appropriate for you.
What is the Flu?
Influenza – the flu – is a contagious respiratory illness caused by a flu virus. The human influenza A and B viruses are responsible for the seasonal outbreak of flu in the United States each year. H1N1 is also a more well-known flu strain and is commonly referred to as “swine flu.”
You can prevent the flu, and the spread of the flu, by getting a yearly flu shot. MedExpress centers stock each season’s flu vaccine every fall to help patients protect themselves as soon as possible.
Flu symptoms are similar to cold symptoms, but can be more severe. They include:
- Sudden onset of illness
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children)
Diagnosing the Flu
When influenza is prevalent, a clinical diagnosis may be made by your MedExpress medical team based on your history, symptoms, and physical exam. There are also tests that the physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner may use to confirm the presence of the influenza virus. The most common ones that are used are "rapid influenza diagnostics tests," which can provide results within about 15 minutes.
For the test, the inside of your nose or the back of your throat will be swabbed to obtain a sample that will then be tested on site at MedExpress.
Treating the Flu
The flu can be treated with certain antiviral drugs that are available only through a prescription. These medications can help lessen the severity of symptoms and can reduce the time you are sick by one to two days.
Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections. Like colds, the flu is viral and cannot be treated with antibiotics.
It is recommended that you begin a course of antiviral drugs within two days after experiencing symptoms. So, if you think you may have the flu, it’s important to visit a healthcare professional to begin antiviral medications as soon as possible. People with a high risk of developing complications from the flu (such as, pneumonia or worsening chronic medical conditions) should still take antiviral medications even if they missed the two-day window.2
Preventing Colds and Flu
For whatever winter ailment is upon you – influenza, the common cold, or swine flu – there are a couple steps you can take to prevent the spread of germs that could potentially affect others. They include:
- Coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue.
- Avoiding touching your face, nose, mouth, and eyes to keep germs at bay.
- Avoiding contact with other sick individuals.
- Washing your hands as often as you can, particularly after you sneeze or cough.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Common Colds, Protect Yourself and Others. Published: Feb. 12, 2018. Accessed: May 11, 2018.
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Key Facts About Influenza. Published: Oct. 3, 2017. Accessed: May 11, 2018.