Will you be one of the unlucky ones who will come down with the flu this season? Perhaps you’ll escape the flu but will suffer through one or more of the estimated 1 billion colds people catch every year in the U.S. While these numbers may put you in good company, they won’t offer much comfort while slogging through running noses, sore throats, fever and other symptoms of a cold or the flu.
So how can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu? Both are respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses.
In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder (lasting about one week) and people with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
Colds and the flu are highly contagious. They most often spread when droplets of fluid that contain a cold virus are transferred by touch (or inhaled). Similarly, the main way that flu viruses are spread is from person-to-person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes.
To a lesser extent, flu viruses can also be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose before washing their hands.
Colds are extremely difficult to prevent entirely. The American Lung Association recommends the following:
The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu vaccination each year.
- Avoid close contact with people who have a cold, especially during the first few days when they are most likely to spread the infection.
- Wash your hands after touching someone who has a cold, after touching an object they have touched and after blowing your own nose.
Keep your fingers away from your nose and eyes to avoid infecting yourself with cold virus particles you may have picked up. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue away and wash your hands.
Manager, Martin Memorial Hospital South Infection Control