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Is it A Cold or the Flu?

Every fall, the American public "gears up" for the winter months, otherwise known as cold and flu season. While the cold weather in and of itself doesn't cause either the influenza (flu) virus or the rhinovirus (common cold), both illnesses thrive in crowded rooms filled with people trying to break free from the chilled air.

Zinc lozenges, vitamin C, herbal teas; sales of all of these items go up in anticipation of both highly contagious viruses. While the cold and flu are often lumped together into the same warnings and tips regarding prevention, there is a definite difference between the two illnesses.

Symptomatically, they both are similar; yet from the outset, there is a significant dichotomy between the two, mostly having to do with severity.

Onset of Symptoms

All of us know the first symptoms of a cold coming on; throats get a bit scratchy the first day, then the nose starts to run on the second day, followed by full blown sneezing and coughing on the fourth and fifth days, etc. It takes several days for the common cold to get to full blown status.

Not so, with the flu virus. Even though the incubation period is 3-4 days after exposure, once influenza makes its presence known, it slams the patient to the ground with severe body aches, high fever, sore throat, and coughs. While cold sufferers can limp along and actually function (albeit minimally), a flu patient is rendered helpless.

In fact, researchers say that the Spanish flu of 1918 caused the above symptoms to hit so severely that many patients' bodies set in motion cytokine storms, a condition that occurs when the body sends too many antibodies too fast to the source of the illness. The result? Able bodied men and women experienced symptoms one day, then expiration only the second day after the virus made its dramatic entrance. In a cruel irony, the healthier the immune system, the more severe the illness.

Fever and Complications

Although it's not uncommon for cold sufferers to run a low grade fever, the flu causes the patient to run fevers in excess of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. These high fevers cause the flu sufferer to be weak and severely fatigued for up to two weeks following the last day of fever.

Victims of both the flu and common cold viruses run the risk of complications; secondary infections often come into play, requiring antibiotic treatment (while the cold and flu viruses are both impervious to antibiotics, the secondary infections that result from both are not).

Once again, the difference comes down to intensity. Bacterial pneumonia, which can be life threatening, is a very real threat to the flu patient; lungs, already severely damaged from influenza, are susceptible to bacterial infection. The common cold patient's problems are somewhat limited to sinusitis, bronchitis and otitis media (ear infections); none of which are potentially fatal.

The good news is that despite these critical differences, preventive measures are basically the same for both the common cold and the flu. Make sure you wash your hands frequently, and avoid putting your hands around your eyes, nose and mouth. Disinfect all surfaces in your home, including telephones, computer keyboards, and even your car's steering wheel, once a week.