Cold vs. Flu: The Lowdown on Upper Respiratory Infections

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December 5, 2016

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This post is available in: Spanish

“Upper respiratory infections” is how many physicians refer to the type of illness that is the No. 1 reason for Americans missing school or work. The rest of us refer to these ailments as the common cold, and in more serious cases, the flu (influenza).

Upper respiratory infections represent the most frequent reason for a doctor visit in the U.S., with varying symptoms ranging from runny nose, sore throat and cough, to breathing difficulty, lethargy, fever and general malaise.

There are many different cold viruses, and each is contagious. This means the virus can be easily spread to another person when the sick person coughs or sneezes. The upper respiratory tract includes the sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx. These are the structures that direct the air we breathe from the outside to the trachea, and eventually to the lungs for respiration to occur.

“Antibiotics are rarely needed to treat upper respiratory infections, unless your doctor suspects you have a bacterial infection,” said Hanif Williams, M.D., a primary care physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. (Watch the video above with Dr. Williams providing a brief overview of upper respiratory infections.)

Most people get over the common cold in a few days without the need for prescribed medication. Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses. And that includes colds, most sore throats and bronchitis cases, and some ear infections. U.S. and world health officials are concerned about the overuse of antibiotics and how that trend can promote antibiotic-resistant infections in the future. Up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use is either unnecessary or inappropriate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Common Cold vs. the Flu

The common cold and flu are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. Although the symptoms can be similar, the flu usually produces more serious symptoms that last longer. The CDC says colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. But the Flu can have very serious associated complications, the CDC says.

Symptoms of upper respiratory infections, or the common cold, are usually coughing and sneezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, fever, and a scratchy or sore throat.

Symptoms of influenza, or the flu, may include those symptoms but at a more severe level. Other flu symptoms can include vomiting and diarrhea, headaches and more debilitating muscle or body aches. Not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

Most people who get influenza will recover in several days to less than two weeks. But some people will develop complications caused by a viral flu infection affecting the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, throat) and lower respiratory tract (lungs). Contact your primary care physicians if symptoms persist. Flu activity usually peaks between December and March, but can last as late as May. Everyone 6 months of age and older should have gotten a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible, the CDC says.

“Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone,” the CDC said.  “Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.”

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