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The difference between the cold and the flu

There has been a lot of concern about Covid-19, the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China, that has sent the public scrambling for measures to prevent themselves from falling victim to this new strain of flu.

Although the novel coronavirus is causing a worldwide stir right now, we should not forget about the common viral strains that cause the public to fall sick more regularly.

There are many viruses that cause respiratory infections commonly called the cold or flu.

Many viruses, including common strains of coronaviruses, are prevalent enough that the science community is able to develop vaccines that prevent many people from falling sick.

Let’s take H1N1, a type A influenza virus as an example: In 2009, a global pandemic was brought on by this then-new virus. It infected millions, with an estimated 575,400 deaths reported worldwide. H1N1, also known as swine flu, is now considered a common strain and no longer causes the kind of harm that it did in 2009.

In the long run, it’s better for us to understand how the common cold and flu affect us, the differences between them, and how to prevent and treat them.

To start, observing your symptoms is the easiest way to tell the two respiratory infections apart.

A cold comes with the following symptoms:

  • Sneezes
  • Cough
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Mild fatigue

Meanwhile, the flu can include the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Chills and shakes
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Severe fatigue

More about viruses

When an infected person coughs or sneezes without covering their mouths, you can catch a cold or the flu. When you touch a surface that has been previously handled by an infected person, you can also catch a cold or the flu.

This is why masks and regular handwashing is highly recommended at all times, more so when it is cold/flu season. While both are caused by viruses, cold symptoms are usually less severe than the flu.

There are approximately 200 strains of viruses that can cause a cold. Humans are most susceptible to rhinoviruses A, B and C, but overall, there are 150 types of rhinoviruses that account for nearly half of cold cases every year.

Coronaviruses are the second most common group of viruses that make humans fall sick. The symptoms of a coronavirus infection are more aggressive than those of a rhinovirus infection, and they are known to cause pneumonia – inflammation of the lungs caused by infection.

Coronaviruses are responsible for outbreaks such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), as well as the most recent Covid-19 epidemic, which is suspected to have been transmitted from exotic animals like pangolins or bats, to humans.

Corona, which means crown in Latin, is a reference to the crown-shaped projections observed on the virus. It is not related to the beer with the same brand, as so many on social media seem to think.

It is commonly found in animals like bats, cattle, camels, and even cats, but in unusual instances, it can spread to humans. Currently, there are seven known strains of coronaviruses that affect humans, including Covid-19, SARS and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome).

More about colds

If you’ve had a cold before, you’ll know that antibiotics are unable to treat viral infections. Instead, we use over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as nasal decongestants, acetaminophen, antihistamines and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

These are combined with drinking plenty of fluids and getting lots of rest. For some, adding supplements like vitamin C, echinacea or zinc may provide added relief and lessen cold symptoms.

The effectiveness of these supplements may be an indirect effect of strengthening the immune symptoms to combat viruses. Many people recover from colds without seeing the doctor, but if it lasts more than a week or you experience a high fever that doesn’t subside, do get your symptoms checked by the doctor.

There are two fairly easy ways to prevent a cold:

  • Avoidance

    The best way to prevent colds is to avoid coming into contact or sharing utensils with those who might be sick.

    If you are down with a cold yourself, it’s best to stay home.

  • Good hygiene

    As it isn’t always possible to avoid being around other people when you are sick, the best other option is to be as hygienic as possible when going out in public.

    Wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom or handling items in places like the supermarket or shopping malls.

    Carry alcohol-based hand sanitiser to cleanse your hands in case of situations where sinks are unavailable.

Washing your hands frequently with soap is a good way to prevent getting infected with disease-causing germs. — TNSWashing your hands frequently with soap is a good way to prevent getting infected with disease-causing germs. — TNS


More about the flu

In countries that have four seasons, the flu is generally seasonal, occurring during winter months. In Malaysia, flu viruses can afflict us all year round.

You can develop the flu if you come into contact with droplets from people who are infected. You’re contagious from the day before you actually fall sick, and up to five to seven days after showing symptoms.

Influenza A, B and C are the viruses that cause outbreaks of flu “seasons”. The most common are A and B. Getting vaccinated for the flu is known to be effective about 40%-60% of the time.

We should update our flu vaccination every year, as viruses mutate quickly, causing the types of common viruses that circulate every year to change. This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) leads the creation of a flu vaccine biannually, based on assessments of the virus strains most likely to be circulate that year.

Of course, the vaccination can only be as effective as the predictions, which is why protection from the flu tends to vary within the range of 40% to 60%.

A more serious form of the flu is pneumonia, which affects these groups the most:

  • Young children
  • Older adults
  • Pregnant women
  • People with health conditions that weaken their immune system, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes

Getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration are the best methods of treating the flu.

Pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, and OTC decongestants can help with alleviating symptoms.

Note that for children, aspirin is not recommended.

At the doctor’s, you may be prescribed antiviral medications like oseltamivir, zanamivir or peramivir for flu treatment.

They are known to shorten the duration of a flu and stop it from becoming pneumonia if you start the course of drugs within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms.

Patients at risk of serious complications should seek a doctor for antiviral drugs. They include:

  • People over the age of 65
  • Pregnant women
  • Women who delivered babies in the last two weeks
  • Children under age of two
  • Children taking aspirin under the age of 18
  • Those with weakened immune systems due to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), steroid treatment or chemotherapy
  • People who are extremely obese
  • People with chronic lung or heart conditions
  • People with metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, anaemia or kidney disease
  • People living in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes

Stay healthy

When people are infected by common airborne cold and flu viruses, the symptoms that follow are often troublesome and last for up to two weeks. If not properly managed and treated, symptoms become worse and could lead to death.

Many people choose to get vaccinated for the flu, but because the flu strains that circulate change every year, getting a flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t fall sick.

At-risk groups like children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic conditions or impaired immune systems, should update their flu shots every year.

On a daily basis, maintain a good diet that is rich in nutrients: eat plenty of vegetables, low sugar fruit and lean proteins that will give you much of the nutrients needed to keep your body strong and fight off common viruses on its own.

Taking the ideal dose of vitamins and nutritional supplements will be helpful in improving the immune system. Your physical health can also be affected by mental well-being, so to get your mind off daily stress, take up an active hobby like yoga, walking, hiking or tai chi.

The responsibility to stop a mass outbreak of flu falls on everyone. Whether you are currently sick or healthy, practise good hygiene and preventive measures.

When you are sick, cover your mouth and nose in public, and go to the clinic before your symptoms grow worse. When you are healthy, avoid those who exhibit symptoms of cold or flu for awhile, and continue to practice good hygiene.


By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 24 Feb 2020