For anyone who’s ever needed Google to help them determine if they have a common cold or flu, you should know you’re not alone. There are thousands of searches conducted each month on the stark differences between the two, as well as their similar symptoms. And over the course of the year, search volume spikes between December and February — aka peak cold and flu season.
In a recent survey of 1,000 people throughout the U.S., 73 percent had fallen ill this season; parents typically get sick twice each cold and flu season, while three in four parents have sent their child sick to school before. The latter is particularly problematic, because it puts other people at risk. The same goes for the workplace: 69 percent of working Americans didn’t take sick days when they were sick (though paid sick leave reduces the spread of illness). On average, sick employees have gone to work sick twice in the past six months.
So, when is something like a chest-rattling cough a severe cold and when is it the flu? Dr. Arta Bakshandeh, senior medical officer with Alignment Healthcare in Orange, Calif., helped shed some light.
“Although both the cold and flu come from a viral etiology, the common cold is an acute infection of upper airway, generally producing nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, sneezing, and sore throat,” Bakshandeh told Medical Daily in an email. He added it’s also generally self-limiting and mild.
The flu, on the other hand, can be much more aggressive; last December, it shut down the Polk County School System in Georgia. Bakshandeh said an uncomplicated strain of flu may present symptoms not unlike the common cold: fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion or rhinorrhea, headache, muscle pain, malaise, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may be present, especially in children.
“But unlike the common cold, influenza can progress to a more complicated or severe state with respiratory tract disease,” he said. These symptoms include shortness of breath, severe dehydration, as well as secondary complications, like renal and multi-organ failure. So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported six, influenza-associated pediatric deaths.
In addition to children, patients with chronic diseases like COPD, heart failure, and diabetes are particularly susceptible to flu complications.