HEALTH TALK: Is it a cold or the flu?

HEALTH TALK: Is it a cold or the flu?
Dr. Victor Emanuel
Dr. Victor Emanuel

I’m sure this is an interesting question right off the bat, because I know that many of you, and us, use these terms interchangeably. But we always have a lingering question at the back of our minds as to which one it really is?

Having said that, it is likely that many of you don’t really care because both the cold and the flu make us feel so horrible, that all we can think about is getting rid of whichever one it is. And this goes especially for our children because they can be frightening for a baby or a child because we often feel that it’s something other than these two.


They are both caused by viruses, these tiny organisms, several millions, if not billions, of which it would take to fit on a pinhead to be seen by a naked eye; in other words, they cannot be seen. The cold virus is caused by a group of viruses we call Rhinoviruses which are RNA viruses belonging to the Picornavirus family. Many serotypes exist. This just means many different strains. So the same one will not cause the cold all the time. Let’s say they rotate.

Influenza (or flu, for short) is of two types: Influenza A and Influenza B come from the family called Orthomyxoviridae. Influenza C is also from this group but is not an important disease- causing virus as such. Those of you who remember your history will recall the pandemic of about 1918 when influenza wiped out millions of people, yes killed them, mostly in Europe.


Viruses, put simply, are the smallest disease-causing organisms known to man. They have killed countless millions of people and caused illness in millions more. They are responsible for diseases like SARS, the “bird flu,” and diseases like yellow fever, dengue, chicken pox, “West Nile” virus disease, hepatitis, herpes simplex I & II, shingles, and, of course AIDS, Ebola, Swine Flu (H1N1) among many others. If you think about all these, you will quickly realize that there is no cure for a single one. Some may be temporarily controlled with some medications, others are killers. Fortunately, we’ve wiped some off the face of the earth, such as small pox, and are on the way to wiping out polio. But if vaccines had not been developed for some such as measles, mumps (Rubeola), German measles (Rubella), our world population would be much, much less today. More about influenza vaccines soon.


First, take note that most viruses produce, at least initially, pretty much the same symptoms before they begin to show their true colors. Remember SARS started like just a cold or a flu, then progressed to kill many of its victims? Even HIV can, in some people produce cold- or flu- like symptoms when a person is first infected.

So, now let’s get to  the meat of the issue. Let’s look at the symptoms and compare how each stacks up.

FEVER: In a cold, it is rare; for a flu, it is characteristic, high (102- 104 F) and
lasts 3-4 days.

HEADACHE: For a cold, this is rare; for a flu, it is prominent.

GENERAL ACHES, PAINS: These tend to be slight if one has a cold; a flu usually gives
these, and often severely.

FATIGUE, WEAKNESS: A cold produces these only mildly; for a flu, they can last
up to 2 or 3 weeks.

EXTREME EXHAUSTION:  This happens never in a cold; in a flu, it is early and

STUFFY NOSE: Cold sufferers get this commonly; the flu only causes it

SORE THROAT: Again, for the cold it is common; for the flu it only occurs

SNEEZING: This is usual for the cold; for the flu it is a sometimes

COUGH: This is mild to moderate in a cold, and the cough, if it
occurs, is hacking one; in a flu it is common and can
become severe.

You may have noticed already that of the two, the flu is the one more likely to cause the more symptoms throughout your body in a general sense. In addition, the cold is more likely to cause symptoms in your upper respiratory tract, and the flu in your lower respiratory tract, that is your head as opposed to your chest for the most part. If you ask me, I can do without either of them; they are about the most annoying illnesses a person can experience; not the worst, but just the most downright troublesome.

Let’s compare another aspect of these two ‘plagues’ upon the human body.


For the cold, mostly there is sinus  congestion. This will not necessarily mean sinusitis, per se, which implies a bacterial infection, but pain and discomfort, above your eyes or either side of your nose.

There will also be earache. These two symptoms should not surprise you because we just said that the cold tends to hit you in the head.

On the other hand, the flu, as might be expected, may cause a bronchitis, or even a pneumonia, and this latter in particular can be life- threatening. So beware of the flu.


For the cold, there is none. Sorry. But I’ll touch on this a bit in a short while.

For the flu, there are a number of medications which are available; one of which, called Amantadine, may be available in Dominica, another Tamiflu. The drugs of this type will keep the flu at bay if taken within about 24-48 hours of you experiencing any symptoms. If you already have the flu, they will shorten its duration and lessen its severity. But they are not to be considered cures. The virus is still pretty much going to run its course and thumb its nose up at you, until its ready to leave.

Fortunately, especially in countries with temperate climates, such as the U.S., vaccines are available which can be given during the flu season ( fall and winter) and most of the time, these will abort an attack of the flu. These are available sometimes in Dominica as well

When available, antiviral drugs such as Amantadine, and the vaccines should be given to people at highest risk of complications from the flu. These include people 65 years and older, children 6-24 months of age, people of any age with chronic medical conditions including diabetes and heart or lung diseases, and pregnant women. One caveat; antiviral drugs like Amantadine are not approved for kids under one year. So for them, we’re really advocating the vaccine.


For the cold, there are any number of off- the- shelf preparations to relieve your symptoms until the virus decides to leave you alone. For the flu, it’s the same, and, in addition, drugs like Amantadine may help if taken within 24-48 hours of onset, as stated.

Now, remember that there is no treatment that will kill the cold virus, or any virus for that matter, neither will any kill the flu viruses. Drugs for control of the flu are called antiviral. So whenever you get either of these two, antibiotics will not help. So do not put pressure on your doctor or try to obtain them from the pharmacist. You may be doing yourself more harm in the long run. Antibiotics kill bacteria, Chlaymidia, Rickettsiae and some other organisms, NOT viruses. On occasion, your doctor will prescribe them if he believes you’re at risk of a complication or already have one.


For children old enough, and adults, absolutely. Many of you older folks will know more about these than me, but my mother used things like Jumby Tobacco, Ramgoat bush, ginger tea, honey and lime, sugar and lime and others on me. Vicks, Coconut Oil and other things to rub were also used. ( I used to hate them but they worked sometimes). A good remedy for the cough beginning with a tickle in the throat is a mixture of ginger tea and lemon juice.

Going back to prevention a bit: Stay away from Carnival events. Just joking, I’m sounding like an Evangelist. It’s just important to let you know that this is when the viruses spread most – in crowds where people cough and sneeze and are in close proximity where they touch each other with viruses on their hands that they inadvertently pass on.

Never knew there was so much to know about the cold and the flu, did you? Hope you took it all in. Glad to help.

See you next week.

Dr. Emanuel, based in the Commonwealth of Dominica, has been an educator of medical professionals, in training and the public, for over 20 years.


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  1. I wish this commentary was being done by a doctor BASED in st. lucia, simply for the convenience of being told what's available in slu as opposed to DA


  2. great information! only problem is that doctors in st.lucia hardly test for the flu and just prescribe medication for the flu when in fact one may just have a cold.the test is simple and doctors should do more testing before prescribing medication


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