SINGAPORE: With flu season in full swing and COVID-19 putting everyone on high alert once there’s a hint of a cold or fever, you may have found yourself running to the doctor more often than usual.
Old wives’ tales tell of developing a fever after getting drenched in the rain, or coming down with a cold after spending too much time in a cold, air-conditioned environment. Do these things really make you sick?
Since they have similar symptoms, how do you know if you’ve caught a cold or the flu? CNA talked to the doctors to find out.
What is the difference between a cold and the flu?
When your colleague on medical leave says she’s caught a cold, this usually means the common cold, which is a mild viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, said Dr. Tan Teck Shi, who leads the respiratory task force at SingHealth Polyclinics.
Colds are caused by many viruses, the most common being the rhinovirus. They can also be caused by the parainfluenza virus and coronaviruses, said Parkway Shenton’s chief medical officer, Dr. Edwin Chng.
Both COVID-19 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are also caused by coronaviruses.
Catching a cold and having the flu mean different things to different people, so doctors often have to clarify with patients what they mean, said Dr. Derek Li, a senior family physician at Raffles Medical.
The common cold is a generic term applied to all infections that cause symptoms involving the upper respiratory tract (nose, throat, and ears), such as sore throat, cough, phlegm, runny or stuffy nose, ears covered, etc., he added. .
“The same virus can cause different symptoms in different people,” he added.
On the other hand, the flu, or influenza, is a specific viral respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus, Dr. Tan said.
Influenza is best known for causing seasonal outbreaks and accounting for a significant number of deaths each winter from viral pneumonia, Dr. Li said.
“It also happens to be one of the few pathogens for which there are vaccines,” he added.
Influenza symptoms usually include a high fever of 39 to 40 degrees Celsius, body aches, and a dry cough. The fever may come before the onset of a cough, sore throat and runny nose, the doctors said.
Many people tend to equate getting the flu with a common cold and not the flu, he shared.
What about catching a cold?
You may have also heard people around you say that they have caught a cold after being caught in the rain. Is this also caused by a virus?
According to doctors, catching a cold is more of a symptom and is usually a sign that you have a fever.
Chills are a cold sensation you may experience during a high fever, Dr. Tan said.
“It occurs during fever due to the release of chemicals as part of the inflammatory response to infection, when the brain increases body temperature. The patient feels cold or chills when the body temperature rises, ”she added.
“Chills also occur along with chills because the patient’s body produces heat during muscle contraction in a physiological response during fever.”
Having a fever alone doesn’t give much information about the cause, Dr. Li said.
“Many non-infectious conditions, including severe allergic reactions, autoimmune conditions, and arthritic flare-ups like gout, can also cause a fever.”
As for what might lead to a cold, Dr. Tan said there’s no scientific evidence that getting wet or being in a cold environment increases the risk of infection.
Both the common cold and influenza are caused by viruses that are transmitted through air droplets from person to person, he added.
But according to Dr. Li and Dr. Chng, exposing the body to sudden drops in temperature can weaken the immune system, but the infection “has to come from somewhere.”
“To put it another way, if I stand in the middle of an empty field and plunge into a tub of ice cold water, I can’t get sick unless I’m also exposed to a virus or bacteria at the same time,” explained Dr. Li. That is not to say that we will never get sick in a vacuum.
“Our bodies naturally harbor thousands of germs in our airways and gastrointestinal tracts all the time, so we can still get sick if the immune system becomes weak enough for one of these germs to overpower our defenses and manifest as a new disease. ”.
When the weather is cold, the tiny hairs in our nasal passages, which trap and filter viruses, are less efficient in cold weather, Dr. Chng said.
Blood vessels in the nose also constrict, causing fewer white blood cells from the immune system to reach the nose to kill off any virus, he added.
Between a cold and the flu, which is more serious?
The common cold is usually milder, with less serious complications, the doctors said.
In general, flu symptoms are more intense and start more abruptly, Dr. Chng said.
Influenza poses the greatest health risks and can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, inflammation of the heart or brain, and even death, he added.
It also has the highest fatality rate compared to other viruses that cause cold symptoms, Dr. Li said, noting that seasonal influenza strains in Singapore account for a few thousand deaths each year.
“The elderly, people with multiple chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, and infants under one year of age are at higher risk for poor outcomes from influenza infection,” he added.
What should I do if I think I have a cold or the flu? Should I see a doctor?
Most patients with the common cold or flu should feel better in about a week, the doctors said.
Getting enough rest, eating well and drinking enough water are important in recovering from the common cold, they emphasized.
Treatment is usually symptomatic, Dr. Chng said.
For example, pain relievers, or pain relievers, can be used for fevers, sore throats, or headaches. There are also antitussives for coughs and antihistamines for a runny or stuffy nose, he added.
Chills can be relieved with acetaminophen or muscle relaxants, Dr. Chng said.
“The speed of recovery is the same whether or not you take any medication,” Dr. Li said.
Supportive medications help you feel better during the recovery process, but they don’t make any difference to the time it takes to recover, he added.
Dr. Tan encouraged people to get a flu shot every year to protect themselves against the flu.
However, you should see a doctor if you have severe symptoms such as high fever, persistent cough with shortness of breath, chest pains or lack of appetite, and fatigue, it added.
Those who have asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease should see a doctor, he continued.
Patients under the age of five or over the age of 65, as well as patients receiving chemotherapy or immunotherapy, should also visit their doctor if they experience symptoms of the common cold.
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