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Which Is It -- the Flu or a Cold?

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[February 28, 2008]  SPRINGFIELD -- Information from the Illinois Department of Public Health:

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses.

What are the symptoms of the flu versus the symptoms of a cold?

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense.

Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations.

How can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult -- or even impossible -- to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests, which usually must be done within the first few days of illness, can be carried out when needed to tell if a person has the flu.

What is the flu?

General information about influenza

Influenza, commonly called "the flu," is an infection of the respiratory tract caused by the influenza virus. Compared with most viral respiratory infections, such as the common cold, influenza infection often causes a more severe illness. Typical influenza illness includes fever (usually 100 degrees F to 103 degrees F in adults and often even higher in children) and respiratory symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, as well as headache, muscle aches and extreme fatigue.

Although nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can sometimes accompany influenza infection, especially in children, these symptoms are rarely the primary symptoms. The term "stomach flu" is a misnomer that is sometimes used to describe gastrointestinal illnesses caused by organisms other than influenza viruses.

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Most people who get the flu recover completely in one to two weeks, but some people develop serious and potentially life-threatening medical complications, such as pneumonia.

Over the past decade, influenza and pneumonia have been associated with an average of 3,500 deaths a year in Illinois. Since 1992, the highest number of flu and pneumonia deaths was the 4,021 recorded in 1993. Flu-related complications can occur at any age, but the elderly and people with chronic health problems are much more likely to develop serious complications after influenza infection than are young, healthier people.

During most flu seasons, which typically run from November to April, between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population is infected with influenza viruses. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications each year in the U.S.

Influenza viruses

Influenza viruses are divided into three types, designated A, B and C. Influenza types A and B are responsible for epidemics of respiratory illness that occur almost every winter and are often associated with increased rates for hospitalization and death. Influenza type C differs from types A and B in some important ways. Type C infection usually causes either a very mild respiratory illness or no symptoms at all. It does not cause epidemics and does not have the severe public health impact that influenza types A and B do. Efforts to control the impact of influenza are aimed at types A and B.

The flu shot provided for the 2007-2008 influenza season was formulated to provide protection against three influenza strains that were expected to circulate in the U.S. -- A/Solomon Islands/3/2006 (H1N1)-like (new for this season); A/Wisconsin/67/2005 (H3N2)-like; and B/Malaysia/2506/2004-like viruses.

[From Illinois Department of Public Health]

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