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Winter seems to be the time we most often suffer from colds and influenza bugs. While most colds are merely uncomfortable, some can become serious illnesses. In addition, our routines are interrupted by the illnesses. We may miss hours of work and fail to attend our normal weekly activities.

One of the most challenging aspects of winter illness is determining whether we have contracted a common head cold or the flu. Both are infections caused by viruses—known as URTI’s, or upper respiratory tract infections. A virus is a very tiny life form that survives by invading a host cell in order to reproduce. Viruses are not killed by antibiotics.

There are over two hundred common cold viruses but only three major forms of flu virus. Viruses are spread via particles in the air sent there via coughs and sneezes. Another way they are spread is by fingers contaminated with the virus having touched noses, eyes, and mouths. That’s why frequent washing of hands is essential to good health.


Adults may catch from two to five colds per year. Children tend to catch a higher number. When the linings of our nose and throat do not trap and expel cold viruses, they go on to enter our bloodstream. When that happens, our immune systems produce more white blood cells to combat them. The immune response is what causes our cold symptoms.


The flu viruses are more serious than those causing colds. Flu can last several weeks and in its worst forms may be life-threatening.

How to Tell the Difference

A cold usually begins slowly and is confined to the nose, throat and chest. The sufferer may have a slight headache, feel tired, but usually can continue a normal routine. Flu sufferers, on the other hand, experience a rapid onset of illness and may suffer a high fever. They usually lose their appetites and choose to stay in bed. The entire body may ache and the sufferer feels weak. While there is no cure for the common cold, flu shots are helpful in preventing influenza.

Treatment for Winter Illnesses

When there is no secondary infection associated with a cold or the flu, antibiotics are of no use. So, most cold and flu sufferers rely on over the counter medications to treat their symptoms. These medications fall into different categories:

Analgesics:  offer pain relief

Decongestants: clear nasal and sinus congestion. They constrict blood vessels  to reduce swelling.

Antihistamines: reduce the cough reflex and dry up secretions

Expectorants: thin and loosen chest mucus

Cough Suppressants: reduce the urge to cough

Local Anesthetics: come in sprays, lozenges, gargles and the like. They numb the

area and reduce irritation.

A healthy lifestyle helps keep our immune systems strong. Getting plenty of rest, exercising, eating a nutritious diet—all of these contribute to our body’s ability to ward off those winter bugs. For more information on winter coughs and colds and how to help with viral infections, go to: