The holidays are a wonderful time to get together with friends and family members, yet it's also the time when the cold and flu season begins. Especially during the holiday season, people are often more aware when they begin to experience symptoms of illness. They know they'll be socializing more with loved ones, and they want to avoid spreading contagion to others.
If a person does become sick, at least initially, it can be challenging to determine if their symptoms stem from a cold or the flu. Understanding the symptoms associated with these two common illnesses means a person will be that much better equipped to treat and clear their illness.
Similarities and Differences Between a Cold and the Flu
At the onset, cold and flu symptoms may appear quite similar. Symptoms associated with both cold and flu viruses include:
- Sore throat
- Stuffy nose
However, there are some important differences between the two viruses. When a person has the flu, their symptoms tend to come on abruptly. Flu symptoms also usually include a high fever, significant body aches, and notable chest discomfort/cough. Conversely, cold symptoms tend to come on gradually, and it's rare for a person to experience a fever from a cold virus. A person with a cold may also feel a little achy, but the symptom remains mild.
To summarize, if your symptoms come on gradually, you don't have a fever, and your body aches are mild or non-existent, you probably have a cold.
How Long Does a Cold Usually Last?
A cold typically lasts 7-10 days from the first onset of symptoms. This timespan is generally true for people of all ages.
How Might a Cold Differ for the Elderly?
For someone over the age of 65, it's possible that fighting off a cold virus can worsen some of their other health conditions. If an elderly person already has other health issues, such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- A health issue that compromises their immune system
getting a cold on top of their current health condition can lead to more serious illnesses. For people over the age of 75, 10% of those who eventually develop severe pneumococcal pneumonia had a recent previous infection from a rhinovirus (cold virus) (1).
How to Relieve/Shorten Cold Symptoms
As with many health issues, it's always important to get sufficient rest when dealing with a rhinovirus. Getting enough rest when ill helps equip the body's immune system to fight off the virus. Other useful self-care tips include:
- Drinking plenty of non-caffeinated beverages to stay well-hydrated
- Eating a nutritious diet
- Using a room humidifier to help keep nasal passages moist
- Drinking hot beverages such as tea, lemon water with honey, or broth to help ease sore throat symptoms
- Sleeping with the head slightly elevated to help relieve congestion
- Using cough drops to soothe a sore throat (sugar-free cough drops are available for diabetics)
- For headache/body pain, aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are good options
When Is a Person No Longer Contagious?
When a person has a cold, they're most contagious within the first four days after the onset of symptoms. However, as long as a person is still experiencing symptoms, it's still possible to pass the virus to others. As mentioned, cold symptoms generally last 7-10 days. The best way to avoid passing along a cold virus is to try to avoid personal contact with others, at least for the first few days. After day four, the risk of passing the virus is lower, although it's still a good idea to practice good hand-washing techniques and avoid touching one's nose and mouth when around other people.
Senior Helpers of Orlando
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(1) Wick, RPh, MBA, Jeanette, 01.09.15, Rhinovirus in the Elderly: The Commonest of Colds, Retrieved 11.30.22 from https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/rhinovirus-in-the-elderly-the-commonest-of-colds