What are flu and cold, and how to best treat?

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What is cold

It is extremely contagious, but fortunately, it is not a serious disease. It is caused by a viral infection that predominantly affects the upper airways (nose, throat, and trachea).

The cold is one of the most common pathologies, especially in the cold months. Prevention is possible, just follow simple rules of daily hygiene. In rare cases, if neglected or poorly treated, it can degenerate into pneumonia and bronchitis, affecting the deeper airways (lungs, bronchi).

A cold is an inflammation of the mucous membranes that have been “infected” by viruses and the typical symptoms are:

a runny nose
frequent sneezing
the feeling of general malaise
sore throat.
Furthermore, especially in children, it can also involve the paranasal sinuses and ears, with the onset of sinusitis and otitis. Sometimes a cold can be confused with the flu, as the symptoms of the flu are very similar to those of a cold.

However, these are two distinct diseases:

Influenza is caused by viruses other than colds and is typically accompanied by symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, and respiratory symptoms (stuffy nose, cough – with or without phlegm – or sore throat).
The cold is characterized by common symptoms such as a runny nose and nasal congestion, frequent sneezing, feeling generally unwell and sore throat, never by high fever and body aches.

The causes of the cold

The main causes of colds are viruses, especially rhinoviruses. The abundance of viral strains responsible for colds is one reason why we will never be immune to the cold and there is no vaccine against this disease.

A small part of the population carries the cold virus without having the typical symptoms of the disease. During epidemics, many children are usually infected, in fact, this part of the population seems to be the most prone to rhinovirus viral infections.

The cold is such a common pathology because it is easily transmitted: the ways of contagion are almost infinite. Rhinoviruses can be transported from one subject to another by “polluted” hands or by the air we breathe, the viruses can reach our body and penetrate, especially through the nose, starting the infection and, consequently, the process of inflammation of the respiratory mucosa.

This is despite defense mechanisms found along the airways, such as mucus, which lines the inside of the nose and whose job is to trap undesirable particles (including germs) that could enter the airways, and such as the vibrating cilia system, which helps eliminate harmful particles that have been trapped in the mucus.

Cold viruses spread very easily both by airborne and by simple contact. In the first case, the virus is dispersed in the air through droplets emitted by sneezing or coughing; these droplets in turn can be inhaled by other “healthy” individuals who, thus, become infected; they can also settle on objects and surfaces, and survive there for a few hours until they happen to touch these contaminated surfaces which also infect us.

In doing so, we do nothing but act as a “bridge” for the passage of viruses which, in this way, can reach our airways and start the infection. To prevent this phenomenon, it is advisable to pay close attention to the environment around us, in winter and in particular in January and February, thus limiting the spread of the virus.

The mucociliary system of the nose performs the fundamental function of purifying the inhaled air during respiration from foreign particles: they are trapped in the mucus while the movement of the cilia determines the progression of the contaminated mucus towards the oropharynx where it is expectorated ( through coughing) or swallowed.

When a virus settles on the mucous membrane of the nostrils and comes into contact with the mucociliary system which carries it deeper, an inflammatory process is established given by the viral infection of the mucous membranes of the airways of the respiratory system.

The virus binds to specific receptors that help it enter the cell to be infected and there it begins to reproduce at the latter’s expense.

Eventually, the cell dies and releases more newly formed virus particles, which go on to infect other cells, amplifying the infection.

Even very few viral particles are enough to give rise to the inflammatory process that generates the common cold.


Cold symptoms are not caused directly by the virus, but by our body’s defense mechanism which, with the help of the immune system, tries to eradicate it. It is for this reason that so many different germs can cause the same symptoms.
Diagnosing a cold is pretty simple. Early symptoms include:

Itching and secretions in the nose
Frequent sneezing
Sore throat
Difficulty breathing
Feeling of numbness
General malaise
However, in some cases, these symptoms are also common to different forms of allergies. If you suspect allergies, you should consult your doctor.


Sneezing is frequent. They can be confused with sneezing of allergic origin. A stuffy and/or runny nose is also common. It is the most obvious symptom. They can last quite a long time, about 3-4 days.


Sore throat is a common symptom. The throat is red and annoying.


Cough and chest pains when breathing can be mild. Coughing is painful.

In some cases, especially if a common cold is neglected or treated badly, may happen that bacteria take advantage of the weakening of our immune system caused by the attack of viruses, to colonize the throat or ears, paranasal sinuses, or airways inferior. In these cases (rare in adults, but more frequent in children and the elderly), even very serious diseases appear as sore throat, ear infections, sinusitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Since complications are very common in infants up to one year old, care should be taken to prevent the infants from coming into contact with other children or adults with colds. A common cold is generally a mild disease whose symptoms disappear in one to two weeks and are never sudden: they usually arise within 2-3 days of infection, gradually. The symptoms are mainly due to our body’s immune response to the infection.

When a nasal cell is infected with a cold virus, our body responds by activating parts of the immune system and some nerve reflexes.
Natural substances are released, called inflammatory mediators (including kinins, interleukins and prostaglandins), which help protect our body from infection and other harmful events.
Once activated by infection, inflammatory mediators cause blood vessel dilation (with fluid pouring out of the vessels) and increased mucus secretion.
All of this results in congestion of the nasal mucosa with abundant production of mucus, which then begins to come out of the nose, the only outlet.

Furthermore, inflammatory mediators activate sneezing and cough reflexes and can also stimulate the nerve fibers responsible for the transmission of pain (with the appearance, for example, of a sore throat).

To know

The mechanism by which cold viruses infect us also explains why we get sicker in the cold season.

In fact, the cold is not at all the triggering agent of the disease, nor does it make the virus in question more aggressive, but it prevents our body from defending itself adequately because it slows down the movement of the hair cells and, consequently, of the mucus, thus facilitating the penetration of cold viruses: when the air is too cold, the eyelashes are unable to move as they should and the ideal conditions are created for the viral infection to take hold.


During the cold season, much more time is spent indoors, perhaps crowded, where the virus can be transmitted more easily. The cold is one of the most contagious diseases known so far, and being in crowded places certainly facilitates the contagion from person to person: this is why children who attend nursery school and school are more subject to colds: the virus settles easily on the skin of the hands and it is enough for the child to rub his eyes or bring them to his mouth to trigger the infection.


Just as cold doesn’t cause a cold, neither does stress.
However, stress and lack of rest, even more than low temperatures and humidity, make our bodies more vulnerable to cold viruses. There is a variety of situations and circumstances in which our immune system is at fault, thus increasing the risk of contracting a cold, but, above all, of incurring its complications.

Infants, for example, in the first 4 to 6 weeks of life are at high risk for colds or other infections because their immune systems are functionally immature.

It is true that babies are still partially protected when they are born by the antibodies they received from their mother through the placenta, but there are many germs from which they are not protected.

Even the elderly, especially if there are children in the family, and people weakened by serious pathologies, which in themselves alter the immune system, or patients undergoing chemotherapy or immunosuppressive therapy are at a high risk of contracting a cold and developing complications.

First, remember that colds are caused by viruses. This means that, as with the flu and all viral diseases in general, antibiotics are not needed to cure it, except in the case of bacterial complications.

Therefore, before taking an antibiotic it is advisable to consult your doctor who will be able to evaluate whether this therapy is appropriate.

It is possible, indeed often advisable, especially in the early stages of the infection, to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (the so-called NSAIDs), such as acetylsalicylic acid, which is a useful treatment for reducing the inflammatory state of the nasal mucous membranes and all the symptoms it associated.
There are formulations that also combine vitamin C with the anti-inflammatory active ingredient, which is useful for stimulating the immune system to carry out its activities.

There are also natural products and remedies that can relieve the side symptoms of a cold. For example, honey is a remedy to soothe a sore throat and bring well-being to the upper respiratory tract.

Another helpful tip is to drink plenty of water, fruit juice, or even hot tea. This is because a well-hydrated body is better able to fight off the cold virus.

We must never forget to wash our hands often to avoid contagion to other people.

And as far as nutrition is concerned, for years to have the hoped-for benefits in terms of prevention and reduction of the duration of symptoms, science has confirmed the importance of fruit (especially the ones rich in vitamin C) and vegetables. Following a balanced diet can strengthen the immune system. Eventually, you can also resort to multivitamin supplements.

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