Demystifying Colds and the Flu

Given that often the terms flu and a cold are confused, here is a refresher on the flu and how it differs from the common cold. The flu is caused by the Influenza virus of which there are several types, including A and B. However, the common cold is caused by dozens of other viruses, including Rhinovirus, Respiratory Syncytial Virus(RSV) and Corona Virus. All of these “respiratory” viruses have one thing in common: They are spread through respiratory droplets directly from sneezing and coughing and can also be spread indirectly by touching an infected surface and then placing your hand close to your face without first washing it. When talking about the Influenza viruses, the similarities stop there; While the common cold viruses usually cause mild symptoms such as a runny or congested nose and mild cough for a few days, the flu is potentially much more serious. Although it may start like a cold, the flu lasts longer and can cause high fever, chills, cough, severe muscle aches and respiratory difficulty needing hospitalization even resulting in death, especially in young children, the elderly and persons with underlying chronic disease. Although there are certain antiviral medications available for the flu, they need to be given early on. Even so, these medications may not always prevent nor reduce the severity of the illness. So the best approach to the flu as well the common cold is prevention.

As a general rule, the best way to prevent the spread of infection of respiratory viruses is to wash your hands regularly especially before and after meals and to cough/sneeze into your sleeves. For the flu, the other important thing to do in order to protect ourselves and vulnerable loved ones around us, is to also get vaccinated.

Another clarification I want to make is that we are also seeing outbreaks by viruses that cause the common cold, even among persons that have received this year’s flu vaccine. This often leads to the misconception that the flu shot did not work or actually caused the cold.  Both of these assumptions are not true.  The flu shot does not cause an infection and will only protect against the Influenza viruses but not against the common cold.

On a final note, I want to talk about the so called “stomach flu” as we are also seeing outbreaks of this illness in hospitals, schools and daycares although the term is not accurate. These outbreaks are technically enteric infections, more commonly known as gastroenteritis (“gastro”). These infections are caused by a number of  different viruses including Norovirus and Rotavirus. The symptoms usually include vomiting, diarrhea and/or stomach cramps which usually go away on their own.  There is no specific treatment for viral enteric infections which  can be prevented by frequent hand washing as well.

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Pediatrician DR.PAUL Roumeliotis is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. The information provided above is designed to be an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace the advice and care of your child’s physician, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect that your child has a medical condition always consult a physician.