The common cold and the flu (influenza) are both caused by viruses. The viruses that cause colds and the flu are transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes into the air and another person inhales the infected droplets. You can also catch a cold or the flu by kissing an infected person or by touching your mouth after touching the other person's hands or an object he or she has touched. Each cold is caused by a different virus, and there are nearly 200 different cold
Concerns viruses. Adults average about two to four colds per year. The virus that causes the flu changes from year to year; that is why a flu immunization is good for only a year. When these viruses enter your body, they multiply rapidly. Your immune system tries to fight them, producing symptoms that include coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose.
The flu is a viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It is usually mild in young and middle-aged adults but can be life-threatening in older people and people who have a chronic illness such as heart disease, emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, kidney disease, or diabetes. The flu also can lead to more serious, potentially life-threatening infections such as pneumonia (see page 250). Because pneumonia is one of the five leading causes of death among older people, it is important for older people to take steps to prevent the flu. The best preventive measure is a flu shot (see page 93), given each fall at the beginning of the flu season. A pneumonia shot (see page 252) is another preventive measure available for older people and people who have a chronic illness; the pneumonia shot is given only once.
Many people confuse the common cold with the flu, but there is one easy way to tell the difference: the flu usually causes a fever, while a cold does not. Also, a cold causes nasal congestion more often than the flu. In general, cold symptoms are milder than flu symptoms and do not last as long.
The flu is very contagious. Symptoms differ from person to person, but common symptoms include weakness, body ache, headache, and sudden fever. The fever can last from 1 to 6 days. People with the flu also have a cough, chills, and reddened, watery eyes. If the flu progresses to pneumonia, symptoms become more severe, and chest pain may occur as the lungs become inflamed. If the pneumonia was caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics are not effective for treating viral infections, including the common cold.
There is no cure for the common cold, and many of the over-the-counter remedies available at your local pharmacy (such as pain relievers and decongestants) treat only the symptoms of a cold. Most colds will clear up within a week or so. The usual treatment for the flu is to take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to reduce the fever and body aches, drink plenty of liquids, and rest in bed until after the fever has been gone for 1 to 2 days. Antiviral medications such as amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir, and oseltamivir are available by prescription to prevent and treat many types of influenza.
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