A cold is an inflammation of your upper respiratory tract caused by a virus. You’re more likely to be exposed when you spend most of your time indoors in contact with other people. A cold virus enters your body through your mouth or nose, but most likely you have a “hand” in your own infection. Colds are usually spread by hand-to-hand contact with another cold sufferer or by shared common objects like utensils, towels, elevator buttons, handrails, and telephones.
More than 200 viruses, including the flu (influenza) virus, can cause a cold. The infection usually starts with a sore throat, runny nose, and sneezing. What sets a cold apart from other viral infections is the lack of high fever. Your temperature typically stays below 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
Influenza (“the flu”) is an infection in your nose, throat, bronchial tubes, and lungs caused by influenza viruses A, B, or C. Small virus-containing droplets dispersed in the air by sneezing and coughing indoors easily spread influenza.
Your first clue that you may have flu is the suddenness of your symptoms; fever, chills, headache, and fatigue all seem to occur at once. Your temperature often runs higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit and subsides within about three days. Your muscles ache, especially in your back, arms, and legs. If you have a cold, you can carry on, but with the flu, you’ll probably want to go to bed. Also with flu, you may experience a prolonged period of fatigue after recovering from the initial symptoms.
Today, 10,000 to 20,000 Americans, almost all of them elderly, newborns, or chronically ill, die each year from flu complications, usually pneumonia. The challenge for scientists trying to protect us from the disease is that influenza viruses can change themselves, or mutate, to become different viruses. Scientists have classified flu viruses as types A, B and C. Type A is the most common and leads to the most serious epidemics. Type B can cause epidemics, but usually produces a milder disease than type A. Type C viruses have never been associated with a large epidemic.
You’re more likely to catch a cold in the winter than the summer.
True, but the reason isn’t directly due to the weather. Cold or inclement weather brings you together indoors with other people, which leads to more person-to-person contact. The majority of colds are contracted by children in school and then transmitted to adults.
You can catch a cold from people who sneeze or cough without covering their mouths.
False. While it’s theoretically possible, it’s not easy. Coughing, talking, and sneezing don’t send viral particles very far, and the particles contain a very low concentration of rhinovirus. Coughing and sneezing, however, easily spread flu viruses, because the virus can linger in the air for as long as three hours.
Hand washing and disinfecting kitchen and bathroom counters helps protect against the transmission of colds.
True. Rhinoviruses can live for hours on hands and survive on inanimate hard surfaces, such as Formica, wood, and plastic. Cold viruses can be transmitted in one of two ways: by touching respiratory secretions on a person’s skin (when shaking hands, for example) or on environmental surfaces (like doorknobs, elevator buttons, telephones, or handrails) and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth, or by inhaling infectious particles in the air (like respiratory secretions from a cough or sneeze).
Antibiotics help treat colds.
False. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections and do not help treat colds that are caused by viruses. Antibiotics may be prescribed if you develop a secondary bacterialinfection of the middle ear or sinuses. Overuse of antibiotics has become a very serious problem, leading to a resistance in disease-causing bacteria that may render antibiotics ineffective for certain conditions.
There are many over-the-counter medications available to relieve your symptoms and make you more comfortable while you suffer. Over-the-counter drug products are intended to treat the symptoms of minor conditions, not to treat the underlying illness.
The active ingredients FDA considers safe and effective for relieving certain symptoms of colds or flu fall into the following categories:
- Nasal decongestants open up the nasal passages and can be applied topically, in the form of sprays or drops, or taken orally. Using sprays or drops longer than three days may cause nasal congestion to worsen.
- Antitussives, also known as cough suppressants, can quiet coughs due to minor throat irritations. They include drugs taken orally, as well as topical medications like throat lozenges and ointments to be rubbed on the chest or used in a vaporizer.
- Expectorants, taken orally, help loosen mucus and make coughs more productive.
- Until recently, antihistamines were approved only for sufferers of hay fever and some other allergies. Recently, clemastine fumarate, the active ingredient in products such as Tavist-1 and Tavist-D, was approved to treat cold symptoms.
Some people should avoid the flu shot; people allergic to eggs and people with certain other allergies and medical problems like bronchitis or pneumonia should consult a doctor before getting a flu shot. And those with a high fever should not receive the vaccine until they feel better.
In the rare cases when the vaccine is not advisable, two prescription drugs are available for prevention of type A influenza: Symmetrel (amantadine) and Flumadine (rimantadine). Either drug also can be used to reduce symptoms and shorten the illness if administered within 48 hours after symptoms appear.
I have “stomach” or “intestinal” flu.
False. Contrary to popular belief, flu viruses don’t cause the nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea of so-called “stomach” or “intestinal” flu. Other microorganisms, such as rotavirus, Norwalk virus, and bacteria such as salmonella, shigella, and E. coli cause this malady called gastroenteritis.
You get a “mini” flu from the flu vaccine.
False. The vaccine’s most common side effect is soreness at the vaccination site for up to two days. You may experience post-shot fever, malaise, sore muscles, and other symptoms resembling the flu that can last for one to two days. The flu vaccine can’t cause flu because it contains only inactivated viruses.
Chicken soup can help relieve cold symptoms.
True. Steaming hot, homemade chicken soup can help clear mucous particles from your nose, remove nasal secretions that contain viruses and bacteria, and hydrate your body. Chicken soup is also nutritious, tasty, inexpensive, and has no known side effects, unless you’re on a sodium-restricted diet!
Some people believe that vitamin C can prevent colds or relieve symptoms. There’s no conclusive evidence of this, but the vitamin may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Another proposed therapy, interferon-alpha nasal spray, could prevent infection and illness but causes unacceptable side effects like nosebleeds, according to the Institute. You may have your own unproven theories about what works. As long as it’s not harmful, try it, but be skeptical of “cures” that haven’t been clinically proven in a well-designed, placebo-controlled study.
Exercising can help “sweat out” a cold.
False. Working up a sweat may make you feel better temporarily, just as breathing warm, moist air can help because both methods loosen head and nose congestion. The best things you can do are drink fluids and get plenty of bed rest. Your body is trying to attack the virus, so give in, and give your body a chance to fight off the infection. The only cure for the common cold or the flu is time. You’ll need to wait for your body to make enough antibodies to destroy the virus that is causing your condition. Doctors sometimes refer to this “treatment” as “tincture of time.”
Cold and flu-like symptoms can sometimes mimic more serious illnesses like strep throat, measles, and chickenpox. Allergies can also resemble colds with runny noses, sneezing, and general miserable feeling. If symptoms persist, become severe or localized in the throat, stomach, or lungs, or if other symptoms such as vomiting and behavioral changes occur, consult your physician. If you only have the typical symptoms, it’s probably not necessary to contact your physician immediately.