December 6, 2023

Taylor Daily Press

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Cold or flu: what’s the difference?  All symptoms at a glance

Cold or flu: what’s the difference? All symptoms at a glance

Every year, millions of Dutch people suffer from respiratory infections such as colds and influenza. These two diseases are often confused, but they are actually different. In this article we first explain what exactly influenza and colds are. We will then discuss the most important differences so you can differentiate between them better.

What is a cold?

A cold, also called nasopharyngitis, is an infection of the upper respiratory tract. It is caused by rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. There are hundreds of different variants of these viruses. Anyone can get it, at any age. A cold often begins with sneezing, runny nose, and throat irritation. This is followed by symptoms such as cough, headache and feeling sick. In rare cases, fever may also occur.

The complaints are the result of an inflammatory reaction in the nose, pharynx, sinuses and airways. The incubation period for the common cold, that is, the time between catching the disease and falling ill, is short: one to three days. Colds are contagious from the day before symptoms appear until about a week afterward. This disease is highly contagious and is easily spread by coughing, sneezing, and hand-to-hand contact.

The cold goes away on its own, usually within seven to ten days. There is no treatment that cures the common cold virus. However, complaints can be relieved with pain relievers and nasal sprays. Complications are rare, except in people with low resistance. Then a secondary bacterial infection can occur, such as sinusitis, ear infection, or pneumonia.

What is influenza?

Influenza is caused by the influenza virus. There are three types: influenza A, B, and C. Influenza A and B cause influenza epidemics, while C virus causes only mild symptoms. The influenza virus mutates constantly, causing our accumulated immunity to decrease.

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Infection with the influenza virus results in sudden fever, muscle pain, headache, and general malaise. Cough, sore throat, and loss of appetite are also common. In the case of influenza, the temperature rises to more than 38 degrees Celsius. The disease lasts on average from one to two weeks. The incubation period for influenza is one to four days. The virus spreads not only through droplets, but also through the air. Influenza is a highly contagious disease: one sick person can infect an average of three others. Infection begins one day before symptoms appear and lasts for about a week.

In healthy people, the flu goes away on its own. However, there is an increased risk of complications from influenza, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, middle ear infection, and, in rare cases, myocarditis. This occurs mainly in the elderly, chronically ill, and people with low resistance.

Every year, the RIVM receives an influenza vaccine adapted to the expected strains of the virus. Vaccination is recommended for people over 60 years of age, those with chronic diseases, pregnant women, and health care workers. Antiviral medications are also available, but they are only effective if taken within 48 hours of symptoms appearing.

The difference between influenza and the common cold

Although symptoms overlap, there are clear differences between influenza and the common cold. For example, the reason is different. The common cold is caused by hundreds of different rhinoviruses and coronaviruses that circulate throughout the year. Influenza, on the other hand, is caused by influenza A and B viruses, which peak mainly in the winter months. The onset of influenza is usually more sudden and severe.

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The flu begins acutely with a temperature above 38 degrees, muscle aches, and general malaise. For the common cold, the onset is milder, with mild sore throat and sneezing as the first symptoms. Only then may a mild fever follow. Flu symptoms are generally more serious. Think constant overheating, severe muscle aches, fatigue and sweating. In the case of a cold, fever usually does not occur or is only slightly high at most. Fatigue and muscle pain are also less noticeable.

We also see differences in terms of duration. The cold usually goes away after five to ten days. The flu lasts on average one to two weeks. Cough in particular can last for a long time in both cases due to the constant irritation of the airways.

Influenza is more contagious than the common cold. The influenza virus spreads not only by small droplets, but also through the air and over greater distances. In the case of the common cold, transmission is limited to coughing, sneezing, and contact with mucus and mucus. In addition, influenza increases the risk of serious medical complications for all ages, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, otitis media, and myocarditis.

This risk is much lower for the common cold, except in the elderly and people with significantly reduced resistance. Influenza can be treated with antiviral medications and annual vaccination. There are no such specific measures for the common cold. Treatment aims only to combat symptoms. We’ve listed the biggest differences in the table below:

difference cold flu
a reason Rhinos and coronaviruses Influenza A and B viruses
Get started Mild, gradual Sudden and intense
symptoms Mild sore throat, sneezing, and perhaps a slight fever High temperature, muscle pain, fatigue, sweating
Duration 5 to 10 days From 1 to 2 weeks
Infection It is limited to coughing, sneezing, and contact with snot and mucus Through small droplets and air over a greater distance
Risk of complications Low (exception: the elderly and people with low resistance) High for all ages (eg, pneumonia, bronchitis)
to treat Symptoms of combat Antiviral medications, vaccination
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