Much of the nation is experiencing the first noticeable cool snap of the season — football weather abounds, and with it, the promise of an upcoming cold and flu season. Despite the fact that cold weather doesn’t cause the flu, crowded subways with sneezing commuters and malls packed with shoppers trying to avoid the weather – all are perfect breeding grounds for both the common cold and the influenza virus. A macabre children’s nursery rhyme coined during the Spanish flu epidemic sums it up well: “I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window and in-flu-enza.”
Since both the cold and flu are the most common during the late fall and winter months, it can be hard to know during the early stages of onset which illness you actually have.
Is it a Cold or the Flu?
Let’s say you wake up one morning with a scratchy throat and the sniffles — is it the common cold or are you coming down with the dreaded flu?
The first day of onset, the common cold and flu can present the same way — but after the first few hours, the differences are unmistakable. A cold takes several days to reach full blown status, the flu makes its misery brutally apparent much sooner.
Although the incubation period for the flu is 3-4 days after exposure, a patient is soon rendered helpless within hours after the first few symptoms appear. Symptoms include a high fever, severe body aches, congestion and a deep cough. Cold sufferers can muddle through, but influenza patients cannot.
The aftermath of the flu is much worse than that of the common cold. By the time the influenza virus has run its course, the epithelial cells that surround and protect the lungs are severely damaged, leaving them vulnerable for bacterial pneumonia. This is the primary reason the flu virus kills — lungs that are weakened by the flu don’t have the capacity to fight an ensuing bacterial infection, especially in older people. Ninety percent of flu related deaths occur among older people who have contracted pneumonia; the second most vulnerable demographic is comprised of children under two years of age.