What is Cold and Flu?
Colds are fairly common and it can be confusing to know when a cold is actually something more serious, like the flu. A mild cold might simply cause annoying sneezing and blocked sinuses, but more severe symptoms can cause fatigue and an inability to complete daily tasks.
There are thousands of different germs that can cause a cold but the flu is caused by the influenza virus. Most of the time, patients can fight off cold and flu viruses, and they are similar respiratory illnesses. Cold and flu symptoms may be similar, but they can vary from person to person and cause different consequences. A cold usually does not cause any further serious health conditions, but the flu virus can cause complications (x).
Cold and Flu Symptoms
The viruses for colds and flu are different, but they cause very similar symptoms. It’s hard to tell the difference between them, but generally, cold symptoms are milder than the flu (x). For example, there are a range of sinus symptoms that are typical of both illnesses. A sore throat, runny nose, cough, fatigue, chest congestion or discomfort, watery eyes and headaches are all symptoms of cold and flu (x). However, a cold is more likely to cause watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, a sore throat and runny nose than the flu (x).
In most healthy patients, flu symptoms disappear in a day or two with some rest and hydration. Most cases of the flu resolve in a few days, though the symptoms can last for up to a week, whereas cold symptoms may linger for longer. It all depends on the patient’s age and general health. However, one of the main differences between a cold and the flu is the severity of the symptoms and that the flu can cause more serious complications. A cold usually develops slowly, while the flu is more sudden (x, x, x).
Patients with the flu often complain of muscle or body aches. Many of the aches and pains that the illness causes are a result of the hormones and chemicals that the immune system releases when it activates as it tries to fight off the infection (x, x).
Fever, Chills, Sweats
It may seem obvious that a patient has a fever if they feel hot, but feeling cold could also be a significant symptom to look out for. The body increases its temperature to help fight infection. Hormones and other signaling molecules in the blood tell the brain to reset the body’s temperature to a higher point, like turning up the thermostat on a heater. Even though a cold can cause a fever, it is usually mild, below 102 degrees Fahrenheit. However, a flu virus causes a more serious fever above 102 degrees (x, x).
The best way to know for sure if a fever is mild or severe is to take the patient’s temperature at home. Local drug stores and pharmacies have thermometers available to monitor a patient’s temperature at home. Patients who feel abnormal body temperatures, whether it’s hot or cold, should consider checking their temperature for fever.
A loss of appetite is a sign that the body is fighting an illness. Additionally, nausea can be a symptom of the flu. One of these symptoms often lead to the other and it is important to provide the body with enough energy to eliminate them. Some patients may also experience vomiting or diarrhea, especially children (x).
Could It Be Something More Serious?
Most of the time, the flu only lasts a few days to two weeks. If the symptoms don’t go away, it may be a good idea to seek medical attention (x). Sometimes, flu symptoms can cause complications, both moderate and severe.
For example, ear infections and sinus infections are moderate possible complications, but pneumonia—an infection in the lungs—is a more serious one. Some warning signs of pneumonia include difficulty breathing; a severe cough with yellow, green or bloody mucus; chest pain; and a high fever that won’t go away. Children may vomit or feel nauseous and older patients may experience confusion. Pneumonia can be fatal, so it is important to seek medical attention (x).
Cold and Flu in Pregnancy
It’s not uncommon for women to get a cough or sore throat early on in pregnancy because shifting hormones may affect immune function (x). But pregnancy can suppress the immune system and put the body at higher risk for infection (x). Pregnant women may be at a higher risk for complications if they contract the flu (x). Because of this, it’s even more important for expecting mothers to get their annual flu vaccine. Complications of the flu can also harm the baby. Research links the influenza virus in pregnancy to higher rates of premature birth or low birth weight (x).
What Causes Cold and Flu?
Viruses are small germs that infect the cells in the body and they cause both cold and flu (x). These germs spread between people through direct contact or through respiratory droplets in the air (x).
There are many different types of viruses that cause the common cold, but rhinoviruses are mainly responsible (x). Other viruses that can cause cold symptoms include respiratory syncytial virus, enteroviruses, coronavirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza virus and metapneumovirus (x).
On the other hand, the influenza virus is what causes the flu (x). There are four types: A, B, C and D. The A and B viruses are responsible for the annual flu season. That’s why doctors recommend an annual vaccine to prevent the flu and avoid any possible complications. It’s still possible to contract the flu even with a vaccination, but it can help reduce the severity of symptoms and lowers the potential risk of hospitalization (x).
Cold And Flu Treatment
Most people get better from a cold or flu in a few days without special medical treatment. Patients may need to see a doctor depending on their general health or if the symptoms do not improve.
Medicine will not cure a cold or the flu, but there are medications available to help manage the symptoms. There are a wide variety of cough suppressants, decongestants and lozenges available over-the-counter. All medications have side effects and over using or abusing these medications can damage the internal organs (x, x). Patients with existing medical conditions should be especially careful with over-the-counter medications. However, the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, so antibiotics will not help the condition. Antibiotics are used for bacterial infections, such as strep throat (x).
There are also several alternative therapies to try at home to relieve some of the symptoms. Some of these remedies may also help shorten the duration of the illness. Make sure to stay hydrated to flush the virus out of the body and get plenty of rest to boost the immune system. Tea with honey has antiviral properties and can help relieve a sore throat. Hot soup can also decrease mucus buildup (x).
Supplements For Cold And Flu
The Sambucus tree is a flowering plant and the term elderberry refers to its different varieties and properties. The plant mostly grows in Europe, but it exists all over the world. Research suggests that it is rich in vitamins and nutrients, can boost the immune system and treat cold and flu virus symptoms.
Elderberry extract is available in several different forms, such as gummies, candies, teas and extracts. As a dietary supplement, take elderberry extract powder at a dose of 1,000 to 3,000 mg (½ to 1 ½ tsp) every day. Make sure to consult a physician about dosage instructions and follow all medical advice.
Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber that comes from oats, barley and yeast (x). Studies state that it can strengthen the immune system and defend the body from cold and flu viruses. Patients can take it as a pure supplement or fortified in drinks and cereals. It’s easy to add to meals or smoothies. The recommended dosage for beta glucan powder is 250 mg per day.
Side effects are uncommon and if they do appear, they are usually mild—stomach upset, flatulence and bloating. But as always, it’s best to consult with a doctor before trying a new supplement. Make sure to follow a physician’s instructions and advice.
Echinacea Extract Powder
There are several different species of echinacea with different compounds that produce different effects. Echinacea is a flowering plant native to North America and Europe and it is a popular homeopathic cold therapy. Research suggests that this plant protects the body from respiratory diseases by activating the immune cells responsible for fighting off germs (x, x). It activates macrophages, which respond to infection in the early stages of diseases and injuries. Echinacea stimulates natural killers in the body that allow the body to fight off diseases such as the common cold.
The recommended serving size for echinacea extract powder is 450 mg once or twice a day. Side effects are uncommon, but patients allergic to marigold, daisies or ragweed may also be allergic to echinacea. It may also aggravate autoimmune disorders, so it is always best to see a doctor for approval before starting a supplement regimen with echinacea.
This herb dates back thousands of years in western Asia, Europe and northern Africa. Historically marshmallow root treats digestive, skin and respiratory conditions, such as the cold and flu. Extracts have shown promise in rat experiments for their potential to treat respiratory diseases like asthma by relaxing the smooth muscle in the airways (x). Patient surveys have also reported its potential to treat dry cough (x).
As a dietary supplement, take 1,200 mg (or ¼ tsp) of marshmallow root extract powder once or even twice a day. It is unlikely to cause side effects, but stop using it if you suspect that it is causing negative side effects. It may also impact blood sugar levels, so patients who have recently undergone surgery or are scheduled for a procedure should not take it. Confirm with a physician before supplementing with marshmallow root extract.
Fall is the season for pumpkin spiced lattes, pies and scones. But it doesn’t have to be fall to enjoy pumpkin’s health benefits. Pumpkin seeds are a highly nutritious extract with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They are also high in zinc, which helps boost the immune system and fend off respiratory viruses and infections (x). Because it’s rich in zinc, taking pumpkin seed extract may help reduce symptom severity or shorten the duration of the common cold.
The recommended dosage for pumpkin seed extract powder is 550 mg (or ¼ tsp) daily, or as advised by a doctor. It is generally safe with few, uncommon side effects. Patients who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take this supplement. Always confirm with a doctor before adding pumpkin seed supplements to a dietary plan.
Vitamin C is a popular remedy to prevent the common cold and flu, present in several medicines. It helps the immune system fight infections by replacing phagocytes and t-cells because sickness reduces Vitamin C stores. It is also a powerful antioxidant that protects the body from oxidative stress that can cause disease, improving heart and immune function. The supplement may cause mild side effects such as diarrhea or stomach ache.
The important thing about taking Vitamin C to prevent a cold or the flu is to use it consistently, since it is a preventative measure rather than a treatment (x). The recommended daily dose for ascorbic acid / Vitamin C is 1,000 mg (¼ tsp). However, different individuals may have a preference or individual need for dosage. Consult with a doctor to confirm dosage instructions.
The Bottom Line
Most people contract a cold or flu once or twice a year, even if they are otherwise healthy. Both the common cold and the flu are a result of a viral infection. They are both respiratory illnesses that produce similar symptoms. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them, but the flu causes more severe symptoms than a cold and it often develops suddenly, while cold symptoms appear gradually.
There are no medicines that directly treat the virus, but patients can treat their symptoms with over-the-counter medication. There are some homeopathic therapies that patients can try to either prevent or shorten the duration of illness. Getting lots of rest, staying hydrated and drinking warm tea or soup can help relieve symptoms and help the immune system fight the virus. Supplements may also be able to help treat cold and flu symptoms, such as echinacea, marshmallow root, elderberry, beta-glucan, pumpkin seed extract and Vitamin C. Many of these have limited scientific evidence, but are generally considered safe to use with minimal side effects. Always talk to a doctor about any concerns trying a new alternative therapy.