Cold or flu? Debunking the myths and staying healthy
A woman is silhouetted as she uses a tissue to blow her nose in Toronto on Friday, November 21, 2014. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
TORONTO -- "Dress warmly, or else you’ll catch a cold!" You’ve heard it from your parents, or maybe you’ve said it to your own kids. But can the cold weather really make you sick? And how do you know if you have a cold or the flu?
The flu is a much more serious illness that can spread quickly, sometimes even before the carrier becomes sick. One of the classic signs of the flu is a high grade fever that hits suddenly, as early as day one.
"The flu tends to be more of a sudden, more severe onset of symptoms, whereas the cold tends to be more gradual," family doctor Maria Campos told CTV’s Your Morning.
Both the cold and the flu have many overlapping potential symptoms, such as a cough, sore throat, and a stuffy, runny nose. But the flu distinguishes itself from the cold because of severe systemic symptoms that can keep you bedridden. These include extreme fatigue, severe body aches, and headaches. These can show up with a cold too, but are only mild. Children may also have diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting if they have the flu.
PREVENTION AND WARNING SIGNS
Another key distinction between the two is that the flu can be prevented with a vaccine shot. There is no cure or vaccine for the common cold.
"Even though it’s not 100 per cent effective, (the flu shot) can help us fight the infection and get much milder symptoms," said Campos.
Health Canada says that every year there is an average of 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths connected to the flu.
With the impending cold and flu season just around the corner, being vigilant about basic hygiene practices will go a long way in minimizing your chances of getting sick.
Germs can be found everywhere, but especially on surfaces that come in frequent contact with different people, such as door handles, faucets, and countertops, so regularly cleaning those surfaces will help.
Campos also advises frequent handwashing, staying home if you are sick to avoid spreading the virus to others, and using proper sneezing and coughing techniques – covering your mouth with your arms instead of your hands.
"We are constantly touching surfaces, people that have the virus, and then we touch our mouth, eyes. That’s how we get infected," Campos said.
If you do get sick with either the cold or the flu, get plenty of rest, drink a lot of fluids, and take medicine that reduces fevers and aches as needed.
There is also a chance you may get a secondary bacterial infection.
This happens when our immune system is unable to properly combat bacteria because the body is too busy fighting the viral infection.
If you have a cold, you may get an ear or sinus infection, for example. But if you are sick with the flu, you could develop pneumonia as well, or a more serious infection such as meningitis. Death is even a possibility, especially among those in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, pregnant women, children, the immuno-compromised, and indigenous peoples, according to Health Canada.
You should go to a hospital if you have any of the following symptoms: a fever that persists for more than three days, chest pain, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, severe or persistent vomiting, sudden dizziness or confusion, bluish or grey skin colour, bloody or coloured mucus.
If your child is showing signs of not drinking or eating as usual, not waking up, not wanting to play, be held, or interact, you should contact your healthcare provider right away.
OLD WIVES' TALES
Despite seasonal health campaigns, some persistent myths about the cold and flu linger. The following are false.
"Flu shots can give you the flu." The flu vaccine is made from an inactive form of the virus and therefore cannot make you sick with the flu. There are different reasons for why some people may get sick following the flu shot. They may have a cold, which has similar symptoms, or they were exposed to the flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period following the shot when the body is still building immunity. Another possibility is that they were exposed to a different strain of the flu virus from the one administered. The vaccine’s effectiveness also varies for different people.
"Cold weather can make you sick." People tend to congregate in closed spaces more often during cold weather, said Campos, creating an environment that makes it more likely you will come in contact with someone who is sick. Cold temperatures do not make you sick; a virus does.
"Vitamin C or Echinacea are effective at combating colds and the flu." Studies and research on the benefits of vitamin C and Echinacea for colds have been inconsistent.
"Antibiotics can help combat a cold or the flu." Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections not viral ones, so taking them will not help with combating a cold or the flu, and in fact, could do more harm than good, said Campos.