Is It a Cold or the Flu?

What did you catch in school today? Along with report cards, class projects, and notes from the teacher, chances are excellent your child will also bring home a cold. Now what?

Your 8-year-old arrives home from school with a fever, a headache, a hacking cough and a look of misery on his face. Is it a bad cold? Or is it the flu?

Many people head into flu season – generally November through March – confused about what really constitutes the flu and what is actually a head cold or virus. The American Lung Association and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases offer these explanations of the differences between the two illnesses.

A Cold – Colds are considered minor infections of the nose and throat, caused by different viruses. Symptoms can include:

  • a runny nose
  • congestion
  • sneezing
  • a cough and
  • a sore or scratchy throat.

Colds can last about a week, even longer in the elderly, children and people in poor health. Colds are also highly contagious, spread when droplets of fluid are transferred by touch. That’s why hand-washing is crucial, particularly around a person suffering from a cold. Complications from a cold include sinus congestion or earache.

The Flu – The flu is more severe than a cold. There are three types of influenza virus – A, B, and C, with A and B being the most severe. A and B flu viruses change all the time, and different strains afflict people around the world each year. To keep the body’s defenses working against these changing strains, a flu vaccine is highly recommended.

Flu symptoms include:

  • a high fever (101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher)
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • pronounced fatigue and weakness
  • a prominent headache and
  • coughing and chest discomfort.

The flu can sometimes include congestion, sneezing or a sore throat. Influenza usually lasts a week or two, although the feeling of weakness can persist for a while longer, particularly in the elderly. Again, regular and thorough hand-washing is one of the best ways to avoid coming down with the flu, as is getting the flu vaccine (which is available as an injection or a nasal spray). Complications from the flu, including bronchitis or pneumonia, can be life-threatening.

– Deirdre Wilson

Updated October 2012 

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