Do you have a common cold or the flu? Here are the cold hard facts

In the latest Global News Explains, Aalia Adam breaks down the differences between the common cold and the flu and provides some ways to keep viruses away.

It often begins with a tingle in your throat or a single sneeze, followed by a headache, drowsiness, a runny nose and nagging cough.

It’s official, you’ve caught a virus. That tall glass of orange juice and big bottle of hand sanitizer can’t help you now.

The question is, have you been infected by the constantly mutating influenza virus, known as the flu? Or is it one of the 200 strains of the common cold virus?

According to medical microbiologist Dr. Jonathan Gubbay, there is a big difference.

“The facts that distinguish them are that influenza is an illness that has a sudden onset, it causes a high fever, aches and pains,” he told Global News.

In other words, when you’ve been hit with the flu, you’ll know.

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While both the common cold and the flu attack your respiratory tract, the cold tends to stay up in the nose and sinus area.

The flu, on the other hand, can enter deep into the lungs and cause complications — and especially for young children, people over 65 years old, pregnant women and individuals with long-term medical conditions and weaker immune systems.

“Influenza is among one of the 10 leading causes of death in Canada,” said Dr. Jerome Leis, associate scientist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute.

READ MORE: Canada having ‘substantial’ flu season so far, off to faster start than last year’s

“It kills well over 3,000 Canadians annually and leads to over 13,000 hospitalizations. It really should not be confused with the common cold.”

Cold symptoms are much milder and more common — hence the term, the common cold — and the most common of common colds is the rhinovirus.

Unlike the flu, which has a specific season between October and May in the Northern Hemisphere, the cold can hit at any time of the year but is also more common in the winter months.

That’s not because cold weather causes you to get sick but because people tend to herd together indoors more in the winter. The windows are shut and we’re more likely to breathe the same air as someone who already has a virus.

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READ MORE: Most parents believe wet hair can cause a cold — they’re wrong

“That’s why also when people travel on flights, some people may notice they catch a cold, not from the flying but just from being so close to other people in a closed space,” Dr. Gubbay said.

Generally, colds clear up within a week to 10 days, but that post-viral nagging cough can linger for weeks.

Influenza, on the other hand, can last up to three weeks.

READ MORE: 6 cold weather myths you should not believe

The virus spreads more rapidly, which causes your body to respond even more aggressively.

Ironically, all the awful symptoms you experience when you’re sick are mainly caused by your body’s immune response to the virus, including the fever and chills that have you bedridden.

The hypothalamus, which serves as your body’s thermostat, cranks up the heat to make viruses less comfortable.

For adults with a common cold, fever is rare and only comes with the flu.

READ MORE: Should you feed a cold and starve a fever? Scientists may have the answer

That’s when over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce discomfort.

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Antibiotics will not help you when you have the cold and flu.

In fact, it will do more harm than good.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent threats to public health.

Health officials agree, the no-brainer defence against the flu is the flu vaccine.

Although not 100 per cent perfect, it still reduces the severity of your symptoms if you do end up getting sick.

READ MORE: Here’s what works and what doesn’t when you’re fighting a cough and cold

Another way to prevent yourself from getting sick is to wash your hands as often as you can, for at least 20 seconds, especially after contact with individuals or contaminated surfaces.

“The rhinovirus can survive on surfaces for at least a day and on skin for an hour,” Gubbay said.

“You might shake someone’s hand or touch a doorknob and then touch your face, or eyes, or mouth and that’s one way to infect yourself.”

On average, humans touch their face three to five times every minute, without even realizing it.

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It’s also important to stay home when you’re contagious to prevent the spread of germs.

And finally, always practice good cough and sneeze etiquette.

Coughing into your hands is unsanitary and if you don’t have a tissue handy, get into the habit of using the crook of your elbow.

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