Wellbeing / 27 Apr, 2020

Influenza, COVID-19 and the common cold

Dr Goh Lit Ching

With COVID-19 increasingly impacting each and every one of us, it is easy to be confused about common symptoms affecting the upper respiratory tract such as a cough or sore throat.

You may be questioning whether they are caused by a common cold, influenza, or more sinister reason such as COVID-19. While they do share many symptoms, it is important to remember that by empowering yourself with knowledge around their prevention and diagnosis, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk and ensure you are treated early.

What are respiratory tract illnesses?

The respiratory system, which is the part of the body that we use to breathe, can be divided into upper and lower tracts. Both of these may be impacted by a virus or infection disease.

Upper respiratory tract infections tend to present with symptoms including runny/blocked nose, sneezing, facial pain, headache or sore throat. This is commonly caused by infections such as rhinitis, pharyngitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, just to name a few.

Lower respiratory tract infections often have symptoms including cough, phlegm, breathlessness and chest pain, and are commonly associated with pneumonia, bronchitis, bronchiolitis, asthma and so on.

Of course some symptoms can overlap and present in both upper and lower infections, such as fever, body ache, lethargy etc. This adds to the complexity of developing a diagnosis and is why physical examination, imaging and laboratory investigations are often taken into consideration when medical specialists are presented with such challenges.

What is the difference and how are they diagnosed?

Common cold

The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system. There are more than 200 different viruses that may cause the common cold. Doctors mainly diagnose colds using clinical observation and medical history.

Influenza

Influenza (commonly termed the flu) is a viral infection of the upper respiratory and/or lower respiratory system. Influenza viruses cause the flu. Doctors diagnose the flu based on clinical symptoms and by readily available swab tests.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus (the term corona means crown) responsible for causing a pandemic of serious respiratory problems. Doctors make final diagnosis based on the available swab tests and imaging.

Signs and symptoms for each condition

Can they be prevented?

Prevention for influenza infection is possible through vaccination. Checking with your healthcare provider regarding availability of the latest influenza vaccination is a good idea. As regular influenza vaccination provides you with immunity against the virus, even if you develop an infection, this tends to be a milder version with faster recovery time. Regular vaccination is advisable annually, especially for high risk groups such as older adults, adults with other diseases, people with a lower immune system, pregnant women, healthcare workers and frequent travellers.

For prevention of pneumonia (lung infection) and pneumococcal disease caused by the streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, pneumococcal vaccination is also available. According to MOH guidelines, this vaccination is encourage for older adult groups, people with a lower immune system and those with other diseases. However, it is worth noting that the current pneumococcal vaccine strains available in the market will not be effective against COVID-19 pneumonia, as the vaccine does not target the virus strain causing the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Common cold viruses and COVID-19 have no known vaccination to date. The most important thing you can do to prevent their development is practicing good personal hygiene. Frequent handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing might seem trivial, but in fact these measures can be very useful if done collectively to prevent the spread of disease in our community. A good immune system will assist your body in defending against any viral illness. A healthy diet, plenty of rest with regular home exercise are also important for a more sustainable fight against the disease.

What are the treatments available to date?

The health of all depends on each one of us

It can be difficult to differentiate between these conditions and COVID-19, particularly as this is a new strain of virus and medical knowledge is still being developed. This article has been developed to serve as a quick guide and does not in any way replace the important testing and investigation processes which assist in detecting COVID-19. Please consider using the Singapore COVID-19 Symptom Checker website or going to a nearby PHPC clinic or hospital to be physically assessed by a medical doctor in the unfortunate event that you fall sick.

References

For a full list of references, click here.
  1. World Health Organisation. (2020). Q&A: Similarities and differences – COVID-19 and influenza. Retrieved on 22 March 2020 from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-similarities-and-differences-covid-19-and-influenza
  2. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19). Retrieved on 22 April 2020 from https://medicinenet.com
  3. Ministry of Health (MOH). (2020). Updates on COVID-19. Retrieved on 22 April 2020 from https://www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19
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