Colds and flu – What’s the Difference

Family Health Diary

A cold is a viral infection that affects your nose, sinuses, throat and upper chest. It usually goes away by itself in 7 to 10 days. The symptoms come on over a few days and most people have runny nose, headache and sneezing.  Some people also get a cough and sore throat. The cough can last for several weeks. If you are concerned you should check with the doctor. Also check in with your doctor if the person with the cold has asthma and if the asthma is getting worse or for anyone who seems really unwell.

The best way to avoid getting a cold is to wash your hands frequently and to avoid being around people who have a cold.

The flu is caused by the influenza virus. This is a serious infection that affects your whole body and can sometimes kill people. The symptoms usually come on very quickly, in a matter of an hour or two. People usually get a high temperature and feel extremely tired; they get muscle aches and often have a dry cough. They are usually too sick to get out of bed for several days. The tiredness and weakness can last for 2 to 3 weeks. The flu is very different from a bad cold.

Not everyone who has the flu virus gets sick however. Some people get the virus and pass it on to other people without anyone knowing. Contact with the flu virus is almost unavoidable.

The best way to avoid getting the flu is to have a flu vaccine. Flu vaccines are especially important for people who are at risk of serious complications. It is also important for people who work with the public and therefore could easily catch and pass on the flu virus.

Flu vaccines
In New Zealand flu vaccines are funded for people over 65yrs of age, pregnant women and for many people who have long term health conditions like asthma and diabetes. A lot of workplaces pay for flu vaccines for their employees as they realise how important these vaccines are. People now have the choice of getting their flu vaccines from a local pharmacy or through their usual doctor. Many people find getting their flu jab at the pharmacy more convenient and they often don’t need to make an appointment. Not all pharmacies do vaccinations and those that do are sometimes quite booked up so it is best to phone and check. If you are over 65 or pregnant you can get your government funded flu vaccine at the pharmacy or at the doctor. Some pharmacists come out to workplaces to vaccinate a group of staff.

The influenza virus changes each year which is why we don’t build up a natural immunity to it like we can to other infections. Because of this the strains of virus in the flu vaccine change each year. This is why it is so important to get a new flu jab each year to keep your immunity from the latest bugs.

Can I get a cold or flu from having the vaccine?
No, absolutely not. You cannot get influenza from the vaccine because it does not contain any live viruses. Some people may experience mild reactions such as muscle aches or headaches for a short time after immunisation. They may think this is the flu (or a cold) – but it’s not; this is your body building up its immune response.

Remember we tend to have our flu vaccine at the time of year when there are lots of cold viruses around. It is an urban myth that “I get a cold every time I have a flu vaccine.” NO, you happened to catch a cold; it’s just that time of year.

Will antibiotics help? What else can I do?
Antibiotics will not get rid of a cold or flu. Antibiotics can only kill bacteria; the flu and colds are caused by viruses. Pharmacies sell medicines that can reduce your symptoms: decongestants and cough suppressants. Make sure you talk to a pharmacist if you are on any medicines or have any health conditions. Many cold products increase your blood pressure and heart rate and may interact with medicines you are taking.

So stay warm, get a flu jab and stay well this winter.

Need tips on how to keep kids well this winter? Read more here

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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