The difference between the Common Cold and the Flu (Influenza)
Firstly, I believe there is a common misconception about what the Flu is. In fact, I know there is a common misconception from working in community pharmacy, whereby people describe symptoms such as a blocked, runny nose and a cough as the flu, or feeling ‘flu-ey’. While the common cold and the flu are both respiratory viral infections, they are caused by different viruses and so have different symptoms, differentiated below. In general, colds (while unpleasant) are much milder than the flu, and do not tend to result in more serious health problems such as pneumonia.
Source of information in table: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/coldflu.htm
Surely if you’re treating your symptoms correctly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it right? Well besides the fact that there would be a little bit of hypochondria going on if you accidentally exaggerate symptoms to influenza level, it seems to be discouraging people from availing of the flu vaccine. I can’t tell you how many times a patient has said they are not getting the flu vaccine this year because they ‘got it last year, and it was useless because I still got the flu’. When I have gone on to ask them about the “flu” they had, it is actually symptoms of the common cold that they go on to describe, and while unpleasant and can lead to complications, it is not as severe or serious as the influenza virus is. This confusion can lead to vulnerable patients, who are prone to serious complications related to the flu, not protecting themselves against it by refusing to get the flu vaccine.
Who are these vulnerable patients?
1. Patients with a respiratory condition such as asthma, COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, anyone who needs an inhaler/other medication to relieve shortness of breath
2. Anyone over the age of 65
3. People whose occupation involves them dealing with the public. This makes us think of nurses, doctors, teachers, healthcare workers etc but also includes those who work in retail and anyone who uses public transport regularly, or travels a lot
4. Pregnant women
5. Anyone with a chronic illness
What happens if a vulnerable patient gets the flu?
It is dealt with much more seriously. Normally there is no need to attend a GP practice to deal with flu symptoms however those who are in an ‘at risk’ group would need to see their doctor and may be prescribed antiviral medication. It is best if these patients are not in this situation in the first place and so a vaccination will greatly reduce their risk of contracting the disease, so it is highly recommended they get it.
So who can’t get the influenza vaccine?
- Anyone who has an allergy or intolerance to any of the ingredients contained in the vaccine
- Anyone who has had an anaphylactic reaction to the flu vaccination previously
- Anyone who is acutely ill at time of vaccination – if you feel unwell get it at a time when you feel well again – ie no fever etc
However, this only applies to a small proportion of the population. Most people are totally fine to get the vaccine!
What if I hate the sight of needles?
Did you read influenza symptoms above? This is a sudden bout of illness that could have you bedridden for days, and cause further complications such as an ear infection, and even pneumonia (mostly in those patients who are immunocompromised – ie have a lesser ability to fight infection, such as those with a chronic illness). The flu could come at a time such as Christmas or during exams when you need to be in your best form. A stuffy, runny nose (ie the common cold) can be dealt with without too much stress, and won’t stop you from sitting exams, or going to work. A bout of the flu however could have you drained of energy and life for days or longer. I think the momentary pain of the injection is worth reducing your chances of getting the flu, given the setback and potential complications an influenza viral infection could have. Sorry to be blunt but your fear of needles? It’s tough but, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It will be administered by a health professional who is fully trained in the procedure and will carry it out so as to cause you minimal stress.
I hear this one a lot:
I don’t really ‘take’ medicines – are there a lot of side effects?
The most common side effects are redness and soreness at the site of injection in the arm. Other than that, sometimes fever, headaches, tiredness and aches may occur as your body responds to the vaccine however these are short lived. Anaphylactic (severe allergic) reactions are very rare and the pharmacist/healthcare professional is well equipped to deal with such incidences should they occur.
Could you talk me through the procedure?
In a pharmacy setting, you can make an appointment to be sure you’re not waiting around long, or a lot of pharmacies will take walk-in patients, as long as the pharmacist is free. You will take a seat in the consultation room, and the pharmacist will talk you through the vaccination. Usually you will fill out a form with your details – you will need your PPS number (In Ireland anyway) – and then the pharmacist will ask you some questions to make sure you are okay to receive the vaccine on that day (that you are feeling well and have no history of anaphylactic/allergic reaction to any of the excipients contained in the vaccine). They will administer the vaccination, and after wards will ask you to stay in the pharmacy for a further 15 minutes (it’s all done by this stage so just relax!) just to be sure that there is no adverse reaction to the vaccination.
Can you get the flu vaccine when you are pregnant? Will it put the baby at risk?
You should especially get the flu vaccination if you are pregnant as if you contract the influenza virus, then you are at risk of complications. You are one of the vulnerable patient groups that should be getting the vaccine. You can get the vaccine at any stage of pregnancy and as early on in your pregnancy as possible. Pregnant women are more likely to be hospitalised with a bout of the flu, because in pregnancy the mother’s heart and lung function undergo changes. This could seriously affect the health of the developing baby and increases incidence of stillbirth. It is therefore highly important that pregnant women protect themselves, and therefore their baby, from the influenza virus. It can also protect your baby once they are born – for the first 6 months of their lives! So definitely in both mother and baby’s best interests to get it.
- the flu causes death and hospitalisation every year
- the flu vaccination, although not 100% effective, is the best way to protect against it and does still have a high degree of efficacy
- the strains of the virus change every year so even if you got the vaccination last year, you need to get it every year to protect against the strain that is prevalent at a given time.
- You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. The virus in the vaccine is a killed virus that trains your immune system to fight the live virus, should it be encountered.
- In Ireland, it is free of charge on the medical card, and often free for healthcare workers also
While this post really is not intended to be an advertisement the flu vaccine, (I get no gain from it other than the hopes that less people will be hospitalised/sick with the flu this year), I really did just want to shed some light on what is a really important and potentially life saving vaccination. Just sharing some knowledge so you can make your own informed decision, and just to quash any myths that are circulating. It is obviously your choice to get it or not get it but make sure you are in the know; and pass on such information to any relatives or friends that you think may be relevant to them, especially if they are in one of the ‘at-risk’ groups. I hope this helps and if you have any further questions, email me or pop it in the comments.
Here are some sources of information about the vaccine that I referenced in this piece and also some that are just useful in general with regards to healthcare advice: