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Flu and Cold

Both influenza and the common cold are viral respiratory infections (they affect the nose, throat, and lungs). Viruses are spread from person to person through airborne droplets that are sneezed out or coughed up by an infected person. In some cases, the viruses can be spread when a person touches an infected surface (e.g., doorknobs, countertops, telephones) and then touches his or her nose, mouth, or eyes. As such, these illnesses are most easily spread in crowded conditions such as schools.

Influenza is commonly referred to as the flu. Between October and March each year, approximately 10-40% of people are stricken with influenza. Although most people recover fully, the flu causes approximately 7,000 deaths annually in Canada, mostly among high-risk populations (people with other medical conditions or weakened immune systems, the elderly, or very young children). There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. Type A influenza causes the most serious problems in humans.

There are over 200 different known cold viruses, but most colds (30-40%) are caused by rhinoviruses. In Canada, the peak times for colds are at the start of school in the fall, in mid-winter, and again in early spring. Children catch approximately eight colds per year, adults catch roughly four per year, and seniors about two per year.

Many people confuse the flu with a bad cold. The following table highlights the differences between influenza and the common cold:

Symptom Flu Cold
Fever Usually present, high (102-104 0F or 38-41 0C); lasts 3-4 days Uncommon
Headache Very common Uncommon
Aches and pains Common and often severe Slight
Fatigue and weakness Can last up to 14-21 days Mild
Extreme exhaustion Very common at the start Never
Stuffy nose Sometimes Common
Sneezing Sometimes Common
Sore throat Sometimes Common
Chest discomfort, cough Common Mild to moderate, hacking cough
People infected with an influenza or cold virus become contagious 24 hours after the virus enters the body (often before symptoms appear). Adults remain infectious (can spread the virus to others) for about 6 days, and children remain infectious for up to 10 days.


Reference Source 39, 74

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