The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu
What Is a Cold?
Colds are mild viral infections of the upper respiratory system Ah-choo! When we say that someone has a cold, we're using a generic term to describe the symptoms of an infection in the nose and throat. Such infections happen when a virus invades the upper respiratory tract—a virus is a very small parasite that infects the cells of living things. Since viruses can’t self reproduce, they need to live and reproduce using your living cells. A virus enters your body through the eyes, nose, or mouth, usually after your hand comes in contact with someone that has the virus or with a “shared” object (like a telephone or doorknob) and then your hand touches your mouth, nose or eyes. Once your cells are infected with a virus, the virus multiples and you get sick.
There are many viruses that can cause a cold, but the rhino virus is the most common.
How common are colds? Such infections are all too familiar: The common cold is the most often reported illness at hospitals, clinics and doctor's office. The Mayo Clinic estimates that adults are likely to have the common cold two to four times a year.
Children suffer from the cold even more: Children, especially preschool age, may have the cold up to ten times a year!
How do you get a cold? Colds are most easily spread by coming into contact with someone who has the virus (shaking hands, kissing hello, handling something they've handled). That's why crowded places where many people come into contact with each other—schools, offices, hospitals, airports, etc—are places where it's easy to pick up a cold virus.
What Is the Flu?
"Strain A" Flu
Strain A is responsible for the most deadly flu pandemics in history including the 1917 epidemic that took millions of lives.
The flu, like a cold, is an upper respiratory infection. Unlike a cold, the flu is very serious. While most colds are harmless, about 36,000 Americans die every year from the flu.
The flu, also known as influenza and grippe, is a contagious disease that affects the upper airways and lungs. It is caused by exposure to the influenza virus.
The flu is caused by the influenza virus
The flu virus comes in three types or strains, A, B, and C:
- Strain A is one of the most serious types. It is responsible for large-scale outbreaks. It tends to emerge every ten to forty years
- Strain B is responsible for smaller, more localized outbreaks
- Strain C is relatively rare. It causes only mild symptoms
Strain C doesn't change much which is one reason it's not so scary. But Strains A and B are like that morphing guy in the sequel to the Terminator. They change and mutate constantly to survive and, in the process, become bigger and badder every year. Strain A can mutate very quickly, which makes it very deadly. It is the strain responsible for the most deadly flu pandemics in history.
Can you treat the flu? The flu is thus notoriously hard to treat and vaccinate because new strains tend to break out every few years. Your body develops antibodies to the flu virus once you've had it, but those antibodies will do you no good against a new form of the same virus.
How does the flu spread? Flu, like cold, is spread by contact with the virus, which is why the flu spreads like the cold: in places where people congregate and intermingle. And with the viruses constantly changing and with modern travel bringing new people into new regions and countries every day, well, you start to get the picture, and it isn't a pretty one.
Some alarmist experts even contend that it's possible for some future flu epidemic to have the potential to wipe out a large portion of the human population.
What are the symptoms of cold and flu and how can you tell when it's serious? Click next to find out.