“Don’t go outside,” my grandmother scolded. “It’s wet. You’ll get sick!” As wise as she is, that’s not quite how the cold and flu viruses work. Let’s break it down, cough by cough.
The dreaded “man cold”
Every fall, I break out my arsenal of vitamins, determined to finally make this year the year I don’t succumb to whatever bug is circulating through the office. And without fail, I find myself in bed with a dreaded case of “man cold.” You know—that dreaded virus that turns any grown man into a sniffling hot mess.
So I called Dr. Thomas S. Ahrens, a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. As an international researcher, he has authored five books and more than 100 research papers. You could say he knows a thing or two about how these viruses work.
The difference between a cold and the flu
Walk down the aisles of any drugstore and you’ll see product after product marketed for both colds and flu. But these two illnesses are hardly twins.
“It’d be like grouping all humans together as identical,” explains Ahrens. “While the cold and flu are both caused by viruses, they’re two very different viruses with different actions.”
With the common cold, you’ll have symptoms such as:
- a runny nose
- sneezing and coughing
- a sore or irritated throat
- body aches
If you have the flu, you’ll experience:
- a fever and chills
- body aches
“The muscle aches and pains are typically much greater with the flu,” warns Ahrens. “You may have a sore throat with both, but it’ll be worse with a cold. And you might feel a little more congested and stuffy with a cold. However, in general, you’ll just feel much worse with the flu. Unless you’re a man—we complain a lot no matter what.”
By the numbers
There are three broad types of the flu, and more than 200 versions of the cold virus. “That’s why we can’t make a cold vaccine,” says Ahrens. “But researchers are working on a universal flu vaccine.”
Invasion of the body snatchers
Contrary to popular opinion, there’s not really a cold season. Even summertime is not safe. However, there is a flu season, and it’s just around the corner.
“The flu season typically runs from November to May,” explains Ahrens. During this time, the air is colder and drier, which helps the flu virus survive longer and spread further.
Regardless of the date, these viruses happily take any opportunity they can to invade our bodies.
“Transmission is mostly via contact,” says Ahrens. “The virus lands on a surface, but can’t live for very long—typically just a couple of hours. But if they’re on something moist, like a wet towel, they can last even longer, and droplets in the air can hang around for hours. So if someone in line at a restaurant sneezes into the air, and you walk in 30 minutes later to pick up your takeout, you can inhale the virus.”
Of course, we can’t go around holding our breath all day. But we can wash our hands regularly. “Chances are, you touched something recently that’s contaminated,” says Ahrens. “To reduce your risks, avoid touching your mouth and nose, and wash your hands regularly.”
The minute a virus attacks you, your body starts building its army.
“Our immune system is so good, we’re more in danger from it than we are of our invaders,” says Ahrens. Your normal white blood cell count is about 5,000 to 11,000 per microlitre of blood. When you get sick, this number skyrockets as your body produces more white blood cells to respond to the cold and flu.
These cells immediately go to work, vanquishing the enemy. And that’s why we get all those annoying symptoms. “Symptoms such as a stuffy nose or fever are actually the result of your immune system going to work,” says Ahrens.
If you’re healthy, a cold will last anywhere from seven to 14 days, while a flu will dissipate in seven to 10 days. “Let it run its course,” says Ahrens. “And remember, if you’re showing symptoms, you might still be contagious.”
These 4 treatments are nothing to sneeze at
1. Sweat it out
Gentle exercise may help white blood cells circulate through your body more efficiently, and your increased body temperature may also help your body fight off an illness.
2. Sip chicken soup
Listen to momma. Her old-fashioned chicken soup may have potent anti-inflammatory properties to help ease cold and flu symptoms.
Check out this recipe for our Soothing Chicken with White Lentil Soup.
3. Bottoms up
“Drink plenty of fluids,” suggests Dr. Ahrens. Staying hydrated helps your body heal.
4. Chill with a pill
More research needs to be done, but some studies show promising results for supplements such as
- vitamin C
Our article Cold and Flu Be Gone provides insights into the evidence behind these NHP’s.