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Cold & Flu FAQs

Reviewed by William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

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Q:Which infection kills 36,000 Americans per year?

A:Influenza (The flu). The CDC reports that flu kills 36,000 Americans annually. If you have an underlying illness, or if you're over age 50, or an infant, your risk is much higher. The flu vaccine can reduce your risk for serious complications of influenza. Vaccine options include either the flu shot or the flu sniff.

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Q:Which illness is known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection?

A:The common cold. The common cold, also known as a viral upper respiratory tract infection, is a frequent and recurring infection. In fact, children in preschool and elementary school can have three to 12 colds per year, while adolescents and adults typically have two to four colds per year. The common cold is the most frequently occurring illness in the world, and it is a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from school and work.

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Q:There are more than 200 types of influenza (flu) viruses. True or False?

A:False. More than 200 different types of viruses are known to cause the common cold, while there are three types of flu viruses: A, B, and C. Type A and B cause the annual influenza epidemics that have up to 20% of the population sniffling, aching, coughing, and running high fevers. Type C also causes flu. However, type C flu symptoms are much less severe. The swine flu of 2009 (H1N1), is a type A influenza.

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Q:Which illness is milder on the body? Cold or Flu?

A:Usually a cold. Many people confuse the common cold with influenza (the flu). Influenza is caused by the influenza virus, while the common cold generally is not. While some of the symptoms of the common cold and influenza may be similar, patients with the common cold typically have a milder illness.

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Q:Antibiotics can conquer the flu and a cold. True or False?

A:False. The common cold and flu are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. Colds affect the upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nasal passages, pharynx, and larynx), and the flu affects the respiratory system (nose, throat, larynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs). More than 100 types of cold viruses are known, and new strains of flu evolve every few years. Since both diseases are viral, the cold or flu do not respond to antibiotics. Remember: Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. A few antiviral medications are available to treat flu. But there are no medications that specifically defeat the common cold. Antibiotics may be helpful if there is a secondary bacterial infection.

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Q:The “stomach flu” is caused by the influenza B strain. True or False?

A:False. "Stomach flu" is a commonplace term, but not a true medical diagnosis, as it is not caused by any of the flu viruses from the influenza family. It's not uncommon to mistake gastroenteritis, which is what stomach flu is, for the viral infection that we commonly call "flu." Gastroenteritis refers to irritation of the gastrointestinal tract (stomach and intestines). Viruses, bacteria, or parasites in spoiled food, or in unclean water, or other agents can cause stomach flu. With gastroenteritis, you will have symptoms such as abdominal cramps, stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

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Q:A person is more likely to run a high fever for days when sick with which: A cold or the flu?

A:The flu. Congestion, sore throat, and sneezing are common with colds. Both cold and flu bring coughing, headache, and chest discomfort. With the flu, however, you are more likely to develop a high fever for several days and have headache, myalgia, fatigue, and weakness. Usually, complications from colds are relatively minor, but a severe case of flu can lead to a life-threatening illness such as pneumonia.

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Q:People are most prone to colds and flu from exposure to cold weather. True or False?

A:False. Though the common cold and flu usually occur in the fall and winter months, the cold weather itself does not cause the common cold. Actually, none other than Benjamin Franklin disproved this in his own experiments. Rather, it is thought that during cold-weather months people spend more time indoors in close proximity to each other, thus facilitating the spread of viruses. For this same reason, children in day care and school are particularly prone to acquiring and exchanging viruses and germs.

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Q:Approximately what percentage of the U.S. population gets the flu each year?

A:20%. There's no denying that a bad case of flu can cause severe fatigue, with symptoms of fever, congestion, fatigue, and body aches. According to the CDC, from 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year as a result of flu complications, and as described earlier, nearly 36,000 people actually die from the flu.

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Q:Sinus congestion and earache are more often seen with which: A cold or the flu?

A:Cold. Complications such as sinus congestion and earache are more often seen with the common cold, compared with the flu, where bronchitis and pneumonia can occur.

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Q:Headaches are experienced more often with which: Cold or Flu?

A:Flu. With the flu, you may feel very weak and fatigued for up to two or three weeks. You'll have muscle aches and periods of chills and sweats as fever comes and goes. You may also have a stuffy or runny nose, headache, and sore throat. Headaches are seen less often with colds.

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Q:Cold sores are caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. True or False?

A:False. Having a cold or the flu seems to be associated with recurrences of cold sores. However, cold sores themselves are caused by the type I herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV type I is known as herpes labialis, which causes infections above the waist. (Type II HSV infections occur mainly below the waist leading to genital herpes.)

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Q:Of the 200+ viruses linked to the common cold, what is the most prevalent type?

A:Rhinovirus. The most common causes of the common cold are viruses. Rhinoviruses, the most common offenders, are most active in early fall, spring, and summer. More than 110 distinct rhinovirus types have been identified. These viruses grow best at temperatures of about 91 degrees -- that perfect body temperature right inside the human nose. Most rhinoviruses seldom produce serious illnesses. Other cold viruses, such as parainfluenza and RSV, produce mild infections in adults, but they can lead to severe lower respiratory infections in young children.

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Q:Medications to treat and fight flu are called?

A:Antiviral medications. Medications that are designed to flight flu are called antiviral medications. The term “antiviral” describes an agent that kills a virus or that suppresses its ability to replicate and, hence, inhibits its capability to multiply and reproduce. Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) and Relenza® (zanamivir) are commonly used to treat the flu and are most effective if given within 24-48 hours of onset.

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Q:What is considered a low-grade fever?

A:Above the normal 98.6 temperature, but below 100.4 degrees. Fever is a body temperature is above 100.4 F (38 C). Anything above normal but below 100.4 F (38 C) is considered a low-grade fever. Fever serves as one of the body's natural defenses against bacteria and viruses which cannot live at a higher temperature. For that reason, low fevers should normally go untreated, unless accompanied by troubling symptoms.

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Q:The best way to prevent flu infection is to regularly wash or sanitize your hands. True or False?

A:False. The best way to prevent a cold is to regularly wash or sanitize your hands. Much of the illness and death caused by influenza can be prevented by annual influenza vaccination. To prevent flu, vaccination is recommended. Flu vaccine (influenza vaccine made from inactivated and sometimes attenuated [non-infective] virus) is specifically recommended for those who are at high risk for developing serious complications as a result of influenza infection. These high-risk groups for conventional flu include all people aged 65 years or older and people of any age with chronic diseases of the heart, lung, or kidneys; diabetes; immunosuppression; or severe forms of anemia.

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Q:Which illness can cause extreme fatigue and weakness that can last three weeks: Cold or Flu?

A:Flu. Though fatigue and weakness can be present during a cold, these symptoms are generally more extreme when a person is suffering from the flu. When suffering from flu illness, extreme fatigue and weakness can last up to three weeks. Extreme exhaustion is a similar symptom commonly seen in flu patients that is not a symptom of the common cold.

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Q:Which illness generally resolves in 7-12 days: Cold or Flu?

A:Cold. In most situations, cold symptoms will be over within a week to 12 days. If you have chest tightness, difficulty taking a breath, and/or wheezing, call your doctor. You may have a cold complication such as bronchitis or chest cold. Or you might have asthma and a cold. In either case, your doctor may need to see you to let you know if further treatment is necessary.

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Q:There is no medical treatment to end a cold. True or False?

A:True. There are no real medical tests to determine if you have a cold and no medical specific treatment to end the annoying and uncomfortable cold symptoms. If you have tried over-the-counter cold remedies without success, there are several prescription drugs available that may help with symptoms such as nasal stuffiness and cough. If you have a sore throat with fever and no cold symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. This type of sore throat may be strep throat, which is a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics.

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Q:Cold and flu viruses are spread though a “droplet spread” that is propelled how far?

A:Three feet. The main way that influenza viruses are thought to spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. (This is called "droplet spread.") This can happen when droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled (generally up to 3 feet) through the air and deposited on the mouth or nose of people nearby. The viruses also can spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose (or someone else's mouth or nose) before washing their hands.

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