What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?
The common cold is an upper-respiratory illness caused by many different viruses. The adenovirus or coronaviruses are the most common, but many different subsets can cause the common cold. There is no cure or vaccine.
Influenza (the flu) is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus, which is a respiratory virus that is preventable with a vaccine.
When do they occur?
Both are common in the winter months. The common cold can have outbreaks year round, with peaks in the winter months. Most children will have six to eight colds per year in the first three years of life.
Influenza outbreaks typically start in early November and can go until March. The peak outbreak month is February.
How are these illnesses spread?
Both are acquired when a child inhales respiratory droplets from someone who has coughed or sneezed. These droplets can survive many hours on surfaces. The time between inhaling the germ on a droplet and having symptoms is called the incubation period. Cold symptoms tend to develop over several days. This time period is very short for influenza, three to six hours.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms for both illnesses can vary from child to child. With the common cold, the symptoms are centered on the nose and throat. In general, influenza makes a child feel worse than a common cold does. The flu tends to make the whole body ache, making the child feel sick all over.
Both diseases share similar symptoms. A cold can make your child feel uncomfortable for a few days. The symptoms include: a runny or stuffed nose, sneezing, a low-grade fever (less than 100.5° F) and a sore or scratchy throat. The common cold is self-limiting, and your child’s immune system will deal with the infection effectively.
Influenza symptoms include a high fever (greater than 101° F), significant body aches, a headache, and feeling sick enough to stay in bed or want to be held. Flu symptoms last more than five days.
How do you tell them apart?
Even your provider often needs a test to tell for sure, since the symptoms can be so similar. Some bacterial diseases — like strep throat or pneumonia — also resemble a cold or the flu. It’s important to get medical attention immediately if your child seems to be getting worse, is having trouble breathing, has a high fever, a bad headache, a sore throat or has a change in behavior. A rule of thumb is that the symptoms of a viral infection should ease up in three to five days and resolve in seven to ten days.
What is the recommended treatment?
Since there is no vaccine for the common cold, the best course of action is to treat the symptoms and make your child comfortable. This includes offering plenty of fluids, along with nasal saline drops to help with the nasal congestion. Your child should also get rest. You can give over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
A flu vaccine — usually available in October or November — may prevent your child from getting the illness. Your child’s provider can give you additional information regarding this important vaccine. However, if your child does not receive the vaccine, there is an antiviral medication that helps only if taken within 24 to 48 hours of the onset of the first symptoms. While it does not cure the flu, it can help relieve some symptoms and speed up recovery. Providers generally do not prescribe this medication to very young children because of the potential side effects.
What about prevention?
You can decrease the chances of getting the flu by frequent, effective hand washing, not sharing drinking cups or utensils, sneezing into your elbow instead of your hand and avoiding direct contact with people who are sneezing. Someone who has a fever has the possibility to transmit the infection.
To help avoid influenza, it’s best to have your child immunized with the flu vaccine. A nasal spray flu vaccine is also available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (http://www. cdc.gov/) recommends that children 6 months to 19 years of age get the flu vaccine. Children need two doses the first year they get the flu vaccine, then one every year after that.
Debbie Gortowski, MSN, CPNP, is a PNP in a primary care clinic at the University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford.