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Cold & Flu

Male smiling after being pain free from headache

Cold & Flu

What is a cold?

Most people assume that the common cold is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and that people are more susceptible to getting sick in winter. However, the common cold is actually a syndrome that occurs when the body’s own immune system reacts to foreign invaders (i.e. germs).1 There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a common cold. The symptoms associated with the cold aren’t actually effects of the virus itself – they are a result of the body’s reaction to the invading viruses and include:2

  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sinus pressure and pain

The infection caused by the virus can be spread in a number of different ways, such as:

  • Physical contact with another child or adult who has a cold
  • Physical contact with a contaminated item that was previously touched by someone who has a cold
  • Breathing in germs from someone who is coughing or sneezing

It is important to know that cooler weather does not increase the chances of getting a cold. The increased prevalence is actually associated with the close contact and amount of time spent indoors during the winter months.3

What is the flu?

The flu is a highly contagious viral infection.4 The most flu common symptoms include:5

What is the difference between cold and flu?

People often use the terms cold and flu interchangeably. Despite both being viral infections, the virus types are quite different. The main difference between cold and flu is the severity and duration of symptoms which can vary between individuals. The table below outlines the different cold symptoms together with flu symptoms, and highlights the severity of these symptoms that someone might experience with a cold or flu.6

Symptoms Cold Flu
Fever Rare Common
Headache Rare Common
General aches, pain Slight Severe
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Common
Exhaustion Never Common
Stuffy nose/ nasal congestion Common Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort Sometimes Common
Cough Common Common

What causes a cold or flu?

Cold and flus are caused when your immune system identifies a foreign invader that is considered to be harmful to the body and the body reacts by deploying defenses.7 The attack can result in nasal and sinus inflammation, which is the major cause of congestion in the nasal area.

The symptoms of a cold and flu will only go away once the body stops fighting against the invaders.8 Sometimes the virus may even have left the body before the symptoms are relieved.

How long does a cold or flu last for?

The length of a cold or flu also highlights the difference between the two viral infections. Symptoms of a cold can build for up to 48 hours and they can last anywhere between 3-10 days.9 Flu symptoms on the other hand can last between 7-14 days and sometimes people can experience symptoms up to 3 weeks later.10

How do I treat cold and flu?

There is no cure for a common cold nor the flu but the symptoms can be relieved.11 As the mucus production begins to increase because of the body’s natural fighting mechanism, it is important to start treating other symptoms as soon as they become apparent.12

Given the symptoms of cold and flu are mostly inflammatory, anti-inflammatory relief can be useful in helping the body fight against the cold or flu virus. Anti-inflammatory products are available as over the counter medications and include NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen.13

Ibuprofen is a drug that can help reduce headaches, treat soreness and eliminate pain throughout the body – helping with the symptoms of cold and flu. In the case of cold and flu, ibuprofen works in two ways:14

  1. Ibuprofen helps alleviate the pain signals that the body sends out due to the viral invasion
  2. Ibuprofen helps reduce swelling in the nose and sinus area which helps alleviate the pressure

It is important to remember that ibuprofen does not treat all cold and flu symptoms but it can help to alleviate many of them.

How can I alleviate my cold and flu symptoms?

Symptoms from a cold or flu can linger even when the virus has left the body. This is why it is important to assist the recovery process. Here are some useful tips to help you get manage your cold or flu:15

  • Take pain relieving medications, like ibuprofen
  • Gargle warm water or buy some lozenges to ease the sore throat
  • Use a hot water bottle or heating pad to relieve some of the muscle pain
  • Use saline drops or spray to clear a congested nose

Because symptoms can often be more severe when someone has the flu, it is important to include these three steps with the above to help recovery:16

  • Rest - will provide your body with the energy to fight the infection
  • Stay at home - avoiding contact with others is important as the flu is highly contagious
  • Drink fluids - these are needed to replace those lost due to fevers and sweating

How can I help prevent myself from getting a cold or flu?

Here are some top tips to help you avoid getting a cold or flu:17

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after contact with others
  • Avoid touching your nose and eyes, as they are the most common places for germs to get in
  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise regularly to help enhance immune functions
  • Avoid close contact with those who are experiencing cold and flu symptoms

What are the dangers of the flu?

Most people experience the general symptoms of the flu, however, for certain populations, such as very young children and the elderly, the flu can be very serious. The flu can result in serious complications and pre-existing medical conditions can often be made worse.18 Below are some of the populations at risk of complications from the flu:19

  • Children
  • Seniors
  • Pregnant women
  • Those suffering from pre-existing medical conditions
  • Those suffering from obesity

When should I see a doctor?

It is best to see a doctor when the following symptoms occur:20

  • Vomiting
  • Intense headaches
  • Paleness and sleepiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • No improvements in condition are shown in 48 hours
  • Other distressing signs that wouldn’t normally occur

If you’re unsure if a medication is suitable, or if you have any queries, talk to your pharmacist or doctor and they’ll provide you with further information about over-the-counter treatments for cold and flu.

References:

  1. 1Advil US, What Causes Cold Symptoms, [Accessed 22 December 2016] https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/what-causes-cold-symptoms
  2. 2Advil US, What Causes Cold Symptoms, [Accessed 22 December 2016] https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/what-causes-cold-symptoms
    1. 3Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
    2. 4Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
      1. 5Better Health Victoria, Flu (Influenza), [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/flu-influenza
      2. 6Advil US, Adult Cold Vs. Flu Symptoms, [Accessed 22 December 2016]https://www.advil.ca/resources/article/adult-cold-vs-flu-symptoms
      3. 7Advil US, What Causes Cold Symptoms, [Accessed 22 December 2016] https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/what-causes-cold-symptoms
        1. 8Advil US, What Causes Cold Symptoms, [Accessed 22 December 2016] hhttps://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/what-causes-cold-symptoms
        2. 9Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
          1. 10Better Health Victoria, Flu (Influenza), [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/flu-influenza
          2. 11Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
          3. 12Advil US, What Causes Cold Symptoms, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/what-causes-cold-symptoms
          4. 13Advil US, Remedies for Colds, [Accessed 22 December 2016]https://www.advil.ca/resources/article/remedies-colds?cid=83
          5. 14Advil US, Treating the Common Cold, [Accessed 07 January 2017]https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/treating-common-cold
          6. 15Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds
          7. 16Better Health Victoria, Flu (Influenza), [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/flu-influenza
          8. 17Advil US, Cold and Flu: Do’s and Don’t’s, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://respiratory.advil.com/relief-center/common-cold-flu/cold-and-flu-dos-and-donts
          9. 18Better Health Victoria, Flu (Influenza), [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/flu-influenza
          10. 19Better Health Victoria, Flu (Influenza), [Accessed 06 January 2017] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/flu-influenza
          11. 20Better Health Victoria, Colds, [Accessed 06 January 2017]https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/colds