Common Cold and Flu

Most people do not know the difference between the common cold and the flu. This is probably due to the fact that both infections affect the respiratory tract and cause similar symptoms. Even though it may sometimes be bothersome, the common cold is a benign medical problem, causing symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and cough… As the infection progresses, pulmonary secretions may become more present and a dry cough can turn into a productive one, albeit not more serious. Bed rest, whenever possible, is recommended for anyone suffering from a cold. The patient should also drink plenty of liquids and increase room humidity as needed, to relieve his symptoms. The flu, also called influenza, is a much more serious acute viral infection affecting the whole body. Usual symptoms include fever, shivering, generalized weakness, muscle pain or soreness as well as headaches. Once the flu is resolved, fatigue, chest pain and cough often persist for a few weeks. Complications may include bronchitis or pneumonia.

Can cold environments cause a cold or the flu?

YES AND NO. Although it is true that there are more cases of cold and flu infections during colder months, temperature itself cannot bear the whole blame. The beginning of the school year facilitates the spread of viruses and young children are often more susceptible to them. Cold weather makes us spend more time indoors in closer contact with possibly infected persons… But we still do not know why some people have several episodes a year while others have none.

Are there effective ways of preventing colds and the flu?

Basic hygiene combined with a few specific precautions can be helpful. Infected people can spread the virus into the air when they talk, sneeze or cough. You can catch it by putting your hand to your nose after shaking hands with an infected person or by using her phone… Thus, anyone with a cold or the flu should wash his hands frequently and avoid the sharing of personal objects. Fatigue and overexertion by themselves cannot cause someone to catch a cold or the flu, but they can make people more susceptible to infection. Smokers appear to have more serious episodes and more severe symptoms (chest pain, cough).

…What about vaccination?

People can be vaccinated against the FLU but not the common cold. Unfortunately, there are over 200 viruses that cause the common cold, making it impossible to design a vaccine. The flu is caused by the virus Myxovirus influenzae which has a great ability to mutate. The influenza vaccine (against the flu) is made with the strains of the virus believed to be most active each year. It is administered in the fall and should be able to prevent most episodes of the flu or at least reduce its gravity and complications. The flu and its complications can have serious consequences in some people. People with heart disease or chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, should be vaccinated each year. People with diabetes, a weakened immune system and those 65 years or older should also be vaccinated. In most people, except those allergic to eggs, the benefits of vaccination largely exceed its risk.

What is the role of antibiotics and vitamin C?

Antibiotics, such as penicillin, are useless against viral infections. They are effective only against bacterial infections. Thus, they are ineffective, and may even be harmful, to curb the beginning of a viral infection such as colds or the flu. However, someone who has sinus pain or earache, a cough with greenish secretions or fever that persist for more than 4 to 5 days, may have developed a bacterial infection. In these circumstances, antibiotics are sometimes recommended and people should seek medical advice. Some people believe that vitamin C can be used to prevent the common cold. However, studies have shown that even massive doses of vitamin C cannot prevent the common cold or the flu. It is also improbable that vitamin C would decrease the gravity of the infection or its duration.

What about cold products?

There are numerous multi-ingredient “sinus” formulas presently on the market. These products may appear useful because they act against a variety of symptoms, but in reality most people do not need all these ingredients at the same time. Think of it as trying to kill a mosquito with a bulldozer… Symptoms should be addressed one by one, using the best product, at the right dose for the appropriate duration. Ask your pharmacist: he is trained to help you!