Many people may think that colds and flu are one in the same thing. In actual fact the one can cause mild symptoms, while the other can lead to more serious complications! Here we break it down for you - so that you know exactly how to tell a cold from the 'flu and then treat the illness appropriately, especially in the case of smaller children!
How it infects your body
Cold: The common cold enters your body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, or mouth and is caused by several hundred different viruses.
Flu: The 'flu enters your body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, or mouth and is caused by the influenza virus (there are several) - a different virus from the common cold.
1. The common cold. The common cold usually lasts 3 - 7 days and the main symptoms are sore throat and a runny or blocked nose, with coughing, sneezing and watering eyes being common. People with a cold usually do not develop a fever and when they do it is mild and short lived, unless of course there is secondary infection. As for headaches and aches and pains in the body, these usually do not occur at all. While the person may feel 'out of sorts' the extreme exhaustion and fatigue experienced by people with the 'flu does not occur with the common cold, neither do nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
2. 'Flu. The 'flu can last up to 10 days with some symptoms lingering or returning after an initial recovery. There is very often a high fever (37-38 degrees Celcius), (especially in young children) which may last for 3 or 4 days. Headache, body aches and pains as well as fatigue and extreme exhaustion are common as the body tries to fight off the 'flu virus. While the common cold may come on gradually, the 'flu virus usually strikes suddenly with symptoms becoming severe very quickly. While congestion, sneezing and sore throat can sometimes occur, they are not the only symptoms. Depending on the type of 'flu virus, there may also be gastric symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
The common cold normally passes quite quickly, with rest, extra fluids and good nutrition being the best treatment. However, especially if over the counter decongestants have been used or when the immune system is low, complications like sinus congestion or middle ear infection can occur.
Complications of the 'flu, however, are more common and can include bronchitis, ear infection and pneumonia. If very severe, these complications can even become life threatening.
Prevention is the best cure!
The best way to reduce your risk of contracting both the common cold and the 'flu is to wash your hands often in warm soapy water (this destroys the virus before it gets to you!) and to try and avoid close contact with people who are ill. Medical sources often recommend an annual 'flu vaccine (especially for vulnerable members of the population like young children, the chronically ill and the elderly). However, remember that the 'flu vaccine will not protect you against a cold as it is specific to the 'flu virus. Moreover, there is some controversy about the benefits vs the dangers of the 'flu vaccine as well as a question mark over whether or not it is actually effective in the very populations that need the most protection. Homeopathic oral flu vaccines can offer many of the protective functions of the conventional 'flu vaccine with none of the side effects. There are also safe, child-friendly natural vaccines available that come without the risks of the conventional vaccine. Some people are not able to have a flu vaccination due to allergies or other conditions. (Flu vaccines are prepared on chicken embryos and are therefore not safe for those with egg and chicken allergies.) Read all about the conventional flu vaccine controversy here.
Another aspect of the prevention strategy is to make sure that the immune system is strong. This will help to prevent you from contracting any virus and if you do, it will help you to recover more quickly. It is a fact that when your immune system is weakened or run down (by stress, smoking, poor diet, repeated antibiotics, etc) you will more easily become ill and stay ill for longer with a greater risk of complications. A healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise can go a long way to building a strong immune system. For some great immunity tips, see this article.
Although the symptoms of a cold or 'flu can be very bothersome, it is also important to remember that occasional illnesses (especially in childhood) are actually good for the body as they help to strengthen the immune system. Also remember that coughing, sneezing, fever and watery discharges are functional because they are nature's way of trying to drive the virus out of your body and compolications often arise when you try to supress these symptoms. For example, using an over the counter decongestant can cause mucous to dry up and be difficult to expel, often resulting in chest infections. Monitoring the symptoms, resting and drinking lots of fluids is usually the best way to help the body.
- Decongestants. Small children, especially, really battle with a blocked nose and this can make it very difficult for them to sleep well. However, remember that decongestants can prolong the illness and may even cause further complications. Homeopathic remedies can help to clear blocked noses without the side effects of over the counter decongestants, while aromatheray rubs, pillow sprays and spritzers are a wonderful way to clear the airways and sinuses as well as relax and promote the much needed rest.
- Pain killers & fevers. Severe aches and pains can often be relieved by an over the counter pain killer which is not a bad thing provided they are used as instructed. However, please remember that disprin, aspirin or any products containing them should NEVER be taken by children under 12 as aspirin has been linked to Reye's Disease, which could be fatal in younger children! Safer ways to bring down fever include drinking fluids, wiping down with a damp cloth or a tepid (not cold) bath. Natural remedies for pain and fever can also be very effective.
- Antiviral medication is available on prescription from your doctor but is usually not prescribed for colds or mild 'flu. Herbal medicines can be very effective as many herbs have strong antiviral properties. Many people do not realise that Tamiflu, the prescription antiviral drug formulated against swine 'flu, was originally made from the herb Star Anice. Herbal antiviral remedies can help to fight against a cold or flu virus while at the same time strengthening the immune system (e.g. Echinacea)
- Antibiotics are NOT the same as antivirals and can therefore not help with combating the cold or the flu virus. According to research, over-prescription of antibiotics, especially where they are not necessary, has lead to the development of hard to treat 'superbugs' and has also made antibiotics less effective. Antibiotics may be prescribed in the case of secondary infections like pneumonia or an ear infection, although there are many natural medicines that can be used in their place. As always, using a less extreme treatment and providing rest and plenty of fluids is always the best way to treat colds AND 'flu. Using antibiotics also can also destroy the body's own natural balance and can result in repeated infections - often seen in children and sometimes called 'Creche Syndrome' . There are ways to beat the antibiotic cycle, so parents, take note.
When to worry
Whereas most colds and 'flu can be effectively treated at home, it is important to monitor symptoms, especially in the case of 'flu or in small children and babies. Parents are often unsure of when to consult a doctor and when to simply make the child comfortable and let nature take its course. Here are some guidelines:
Call your doctor if you or a member of your family experience:
- Persistent fever: (possible sign of another bacterial infection)
- Painful swallowing: (severe pain could mean strep throat)
- Persistent coughing: When a cough doesn't go away after two or three weeks (may be bronchitis or pneumonia)
- Persistent congestion and headaches: (may be sinus infection)
Medical emergency in adults may include:
- Severe chest pain
- Severe headache
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent vomiting
Medical emergency in children may include:
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Lethargy and failure to interact normally
- Severe vomiting or diarrhea that continues for more than 3 or 4 hours and where fluid intake drops, especially in the case of younger children. Continued vomiting and diarrhea in babies under 6 months shoudl always be taken seriously as they can quickly become dehydrated.
- Extreme irritability or distress
- Symptoms that were improving and then suddenly worsen
- Fever with a rash
Our natural recommendations for colds or flu:
- At the beginning of winter, take a course of a natural immune booster for adults or for children (Immunity Plus, KiddieBoost). Repeat the course at the very first signs of infection.
- At the beginning of winter, also use a homeopathic flu vaccine (Baniflu) which is safe for all ages and in tablet form, no needles! At the very first signs of infection (sore throat, runny nose, fever) repeat the treatment and add Throat and Tonsil Doctor and Sniffly Sprinkles to prevent a secondary infection when the flu goes down to the chest or to the ears. Following this routine can ensure that the initial viral infection clears quickly, that secondary complications are minimized and antibiotics are avoided, thereby reducing the likelihood of recurring infections.
- Natural remedies can provide symptomatic relief for blocked and runny noses and fever, as well as vomiting, without the side effects of synthetic medication (Throat and Tonsil Dr, Sniffly Sprinkles, CongestoK KiddieRub)