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Influenza and the common cold: causes, symptoms and treatment

by Marisabelle Bonnici

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Do you seem to be coming down with a nasty bug that has been making the rounds? You woke up feeling pretty lousy. Your nose is running faster than your legs and you have a sore throat. Your head is pounding harder than when you had your last hangover. These symptoms are probably familiar to all of you. But how can you be sure whether it’s a cold or the seasonal flu? Symptoms can sometimes be similar and in many cases, it’s difficult to know for sure.

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The flu and the common cold are both illnesses that will affect your respiratory tract (throat, nose, lungs). As a general rule, the flu (or influenza) is worse than the common cold and symptoms are usually more intense.

If you are coming down with a cold, you are more likely to have the following:

  • a sore throat
  • a runny or stuffy nose
  • watery eyes
  • mild aches and pains
  • an irritating cough
  • symptoms usually resolve themselves within 7 - 10 days

Colds are caused by the Rhinovirus and generally resolve themselves without medication or hospitalization. On the other hand, the flu can have several complications and should be taken more seriously.

You can tell you have caught the flu if you have:

  • a dry, hacking cough
  • fever
  • chills
  • severe aches and pains
  • a pounding headache
  • stuffy and runny nose
  • severe fatigue that may last up to two weeks
  • nausea and vomiting (most common in children)
  • the flu generally lasts around two weeks

Is the flu dangerous?

When thinking of the flu most people will tell you that it makes them feel miserable, that they usually have a fever, they feel lots of aches and pains everywhere, they have an irritating cough and sore throat, amongst other symptoms. For most of us, it would just mean that we call in sick to work for a week and recover slowly at home.

For certain people, however, including the elderly, cancer patients, pregnant women, the morbidly obese and also very young children, the flu can be more dangerous. It can even contribute to death in some instances. In fact, historically the influenza virus is responsible for one of the worst pandemics in the world when in 1918 alone, it claimed the lives of over 20 million people.

Should I take the flu vaccine?

Taking the flu shot every year will protect you from influenza despite not offering 100% protection. Viruses are extremely intelligent microorganisms that will slightly change their structure annually to ensure that they will survive. Researchers work hard to identify what viruses will be plaguing us the following winter and for this reason, a new vaccine has to be developed annually to protect against the strains that will probably emerge.

When you get vaccinated, your immune system will produce antibodies that will fight off the viruses included in the shot. The vaccine is always recommended to people who are over 65, asthmatic, suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes, work in education or in the health sector. However, taking the vaccine can also protect those around you because if you don’t catch the virus then you cannot spread it either, resulting in fewer germs around.

How do I treat my cold?

Since a cold is a viral infection, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. What you can do is treat the symptoms and boost your immune system. There are various over-the-counter medications that can help control the symptoms. Cold and flu preparations typically contain decongestants which will help with your blocked nose but be aware that if you have high blood pressure, they aren’t suitable for you. So always ask for your health care provider’s advice before purchasing anything. Having said that, the only real "cure" is to let a cold run its course.

Should I stay home from work or keep my children home from school?


The choice may seem obvious to most of you— it’s best to stay home, while kids should ideally be kept away from school for the full length of the illness. It is also essential to avoid going out when you are most contagious. If it’s a cold, this would be immediately after you contract the virus and before you even start developing any symptoms. For the flu, you are most contagious from the day before symptoms start until about the fifth day of illness.

Can I catch a cold because I feel cold?

How many times has your grandmother insisted that you sit away from drafts and to avoid going outside with wet hair? Or how about the need to put more clothes on because it’s cold and you might get sick? But if this is a myth (after all wouldn’t people living in cold countries be sick for most of the year?), then why do colds and the flu peak during the winter?

During colder months, people tend to spend more time indoors in places with poor ventilation, such as stores, cinemas and restaurants. Furthermore, the Rhinovirus and Influenza virus tend to replicate much more in cold temperatures and dry environments. For instance, the temperature inside the nasal cavity is low during winter months - approximately 33°C (91.4°F), much lower than our core body temperature. Also, our nose and mouth often feel dry as we tend to drink less during winter months, which may make it an ideal breeding ground for these viruses.

Last but not least, being repeatedly exposed to lower temperatures can adversely affect our immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections.

Why does this happen?

  • Low vitamin D levels - during the winter months, many people get less vitamin D due to reduced sun exposure and shorter days. Research has shown that vitamin D is crucial to activating our defense system and without this vitamin - the killer cells of our immune system -- the T cells -- will not be able to react.
  • Blood vessel narrowing - breathing in cold and dry air causes the blood vessels in the upper respiratory tract to narrow in order to conserve heat. This may prevent white blood cells from reaching the mucous membrane, making it harder for the body to fight off infection.

So can vitamin C prevent a cold?

This is one of the most common questions I always get asked at work. Many people expect to never get sick if they take vitamin C supplements daily as a natural cold remedy. But if you want to reap the benefits of this vitamin you'll need to take it every single day alongside a healthy and balanced diet that includes your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

How do I avoid catching a cold?


Viruses spread through human contact. Make sure you wash your hands regularly with soap, while avoid touching your nose and mouth with your hands. Use disinfectant wipes to regularly wipe down high traffic surfaces like telephones to further protect yourself. If someone in your household is currently down with the flu, wear a face mask to protect yourself. And remember, it’s best to cough or sneeze into your elbow instead of your hands. As already mentioned, the flu vaccine can be of help, whereas boosting your immune system all year round can also make you less susceptible to these viruses.

How can I boost my immune system?

Our immune system protects us from infections and ensures we have a good quality of life all year round. Take good care of it and there will be perks. Sounds very much like a business relationship, right?

Here are some tips on how to take better care of your health 365 days a year:

  • Eating or drinking too much sugar will interfere with your immune system cells’ ability to protect our body against viruses and bacteria. Also, the effect from sugar can last up to several hours, so if you’re eating sweets or drinking soft drinks all day long, you are prolonging the period your immune system is 'down'.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. I am sure you have all heard that a colourful plate is the healthiest. Different coloured fruit and vegetables are rich in various nutrients and antioxidants and studies have shown that they improve your antibody’s response to vaccines.
  • Get enough sleep. When we do not get enough sleep, like for example when travelling or studying, our bodies will produce fewer cytokines - proteins that are produced by the immune system and fight inflammation and infections. Cytokines are synthesized by the body during sleep, so if you aren’t sleeping enough, then you aren't producing cytokines and you might end up getting sick much more often. So make sure you get the recommended eight hours of sleep.
  • Quit smoking. Tobacco increases the risk of upper respiratory tract infections often resulting in the common smoker’s cough.
  • Drink more water. Water cleanses our body and keeps our digestive system and kidneys healthy. It also stimulates the production of lymph, a fluid that collects harmful organisms that have entered our body and removes them through the lymph nodes. Water also keeps our nose and mouth lubricated properly, reducing the probability of viruses multiplying there.
  • Consume probiotics. Recent studies have linked poor gut health to many conditions including a weakened immune system. Taking probiotics can significantly help with that while they can reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults.
  • Take ginger and turmeric. These two herbs are known to reduce inflammation like sore throats and a cough’s severity.
  • There are several supplements available containing ingredients like Echinacea; elderberry, Astragalus roots, Vitamin B’s, Magnesium, Selenium and Zinc. My advice is to avoid a multivitamin and instead get a supplement that contains one or more of these.
  • Garlic is also known for having antibacterial properties and will help your body fight off infection.


Whether you’re coming down with the flu or the common cold, don’t let it get the better of you. Take the necessary precautions and stock up on over-the-counter concoctions by visiting one of these pharmacies listed on Yellow.


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Marisabelle Bonnici
About Marisabelle Bonnici

Marisabelle, also known as Belle is a pharmacist by profession with a passion for healthcare, photography, writing and travelling. Belle completely changed her life over the past two years as she was no longer happy with a high paced stressful life so she changed her lifestyle; lost 43kg; started a blog called Roadtobelle and decided to pursue her passion of helping people with their health through her blog and working as freelance pharmacist. 

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