The flu or just a cold?

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Because of its ability to spread rapidly from person to person, the flu was once believed to be caused by the influence of the stars and planets. That's why, in the 1500s, the Italians gave the disease the name influenza from their word for influence.

Today, we know that the acute respiratory infection known as influenza, or flu, is caused by a variety of viruses, some more virulent than others. They spread primarily via airborne droplets of respiratory fluids released when infected people cough or sneeze. Viruses can enter the body through the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth.

Once a person has been infected, symptoms usually appear within two to four days. Headache, chills, and dry cough are followed rapidly by body aches and fever. Treatment generally consists of resting in bed, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking over-the,counter medications like aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve fever and discomfort. Some people also take rimantadine or amantadine, drugs that fight the type A flu viruses (the most prevalent). These medications can shorten the duration of fever and other symptoms if taken within 48 hours after the onset of the illness.

Sometimes a physician will prescribe rimantadine or amantadine to prevent the flu. More typically, however, prevention comes in the form of a flu shot. The American Lung Association recommends that people 65 and over, as well as anyone with a chronic illness, get a flu shot each fall. It has to be repeated every year because flu viruses mutate; scientists formulate a different vaccine to take care of the new virus(es) each flu season.

Health professionals say vulnerable segments of the population should receive flu shots because the flu can lead to life-threatening complications, namely lower respiratory tract bacterial infections like pneumonia. While the immune system is busy fighting the flu, the body is less able to resist a second infection.

Unlike flu, the common cold generally does not carry the threat of secondary infections. Also, its symptoms generally are milder and don't last as long as flu symptoms. Two out of every three people recover in a week. But colds are the leading cause of doctor visits and of job absenteeism. In 1992, colds were responsible for 157 million days of restricted activity and 15 million days lost from work, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

An estimated one billion colds occur each year in the U.S. Young and middle-aged adults average two to four colds each, those older than 60 less than one. Women get more colds than men, possibly because of closer contact with cold-infected children.

Colds, like the flu, are caused by viruses, more than 200 different strains of them, in fact. Those known as rhinoviruses (from the Greek rhin, meaning nose) are responsible for a third of all colds. They grow best at temperatures of about 91 degrees F--the temperature of the human nasal mucosa.

Contrary to popular belief, the sneezing, scratchy throat, and runny nose characteristic of the upper respiratory infection known as the cold are not caused by going out with a wet head or exposure to cold weather. However, most colds do occur during the fall and winter. Humidity is low then, and the most common cold-causing viruses survive better in low humidity. In addition, cold weather dries the lining of the nasal passages, making them more vulnerable to viral infection. Finally, as people tend to spend more time indoors in colder months, the likelihood that viruses will spread from person to person increases.

Cold viruses are spread by touching infectious respiratory secretions on the skin. If you shake hands with an infected person and then rub your eyes or nose, a cold can follow. You can also pick up cold viruses left on surfaces like doorknobs or telephones. In addition, you can catch a cold by inhaling respiratory secretions floating in the air. Psychological stress increases susceptibility, according to experiments funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Washing the hands is the simplest and most effective way to keep from getting colds as well as to keep them from spreading. In addition, people with colds should always sneeze or cough into a facial tissue and immediately throw it away so the virus doesn't become airborne.

Cold and flu at a glance
The following chart reads as follows:

Row 1: Symptoms

Row 2: Cold

Row 3: Flu

Fever

Rare

Characteristic, high (102-104+ F); lasts 3-4 days

Headache

Rare

Prominent

General aches, pains

Slight

Usual; often severe

Fatigue, weakness

Quite mild

Can last up to 2-3 weeks

Extreme exhaustion

Never

Early and prominent

Stuffy nose

Common

Sometimes

Sneezing

Usual

Sometimes

Sore throat

Common

Sometimes

Chest discomfort, cough

Mild to moderate; hacking cough

Common; can become severe

Complications

Sinus congestion, earachecan

Pneumonia, bronchitis; be life-threatening

Prevention

None

Annual vaccination; amantadine or rimantadine (antiviral drugs)

Treatment

Temporary relief

Amantadine or rimantadine within 24-48 hours after onset of
symptoms
From the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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