Is it the flu or the common cold?

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

I’m writing this from my deathbed. Well, okay, maybe not quite as close to death as I actually felt yesterday, but I have been really, really ill. After four feverish, sweaty, pain-wracked days in bed, sick as a dog, this morning I dragged myself into a  steamy shower and felt almost human again. For a few minutes, anyway, until I collapsed in an exhausted heap in bed. At first, I was calling this affliction a cold, but it appears what I actually have is the flu (or influenza). Here’s what I’ve been learning about what happens when heart patients face these nasty bugs: 

If you have heart disease, catching a cold or flu virus can lead to potentially severe health problems. While the virus itself isn’t usually serious, complications such as pneumonia – particularly for influenza – can make it hard to take in oxygen efficiently. This makes your heart work harder to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. This extra demand on the heart can be important when a person diagnosed with heart disease catches a bad cold or flu.

Both influenza and the common cold are viral respiratory infections (they affect the nose, throat, and lungs).

There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. Type A influenza causes the most serious problems in humans. On the other hand, there are over 200 different known cold viruses, but most colds (30% to 40%) are caused by the rhinovirus.

Like me, many people confuse the flu with just a really, really bad cold.  Here’s how to spot the differences:

Influenza: sudden onset, fever for 3-4 days, extreme exhaustion at the beginning, body aches and pain, headache, severe fatigue (up to 21 days), chest discomfort, dry cough, can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, can be fatal in high-risk patients.

Cold:  gradual onset (“coming down with a cold”), sore throat, sneezing, mild/moderate chest discomfort and cough, nasal congestion, runny nose, mild fatigue, slight aches/pain, can lead to sinus congestion or earache.

According to Dr. Sheldon Sheps of Mayo Clinic, over-the-counter cold remedies containing decongestants can cause concern for heart patients who have high blood pressure. Decongestants relieve nasal stuffiness by narrowing blood vessels and reducing swelling in the nose. But this narrowing can affect other blood vessels as well, which can increase blood pressure.

To keep your blood pressure in check, avoid over-the-counter decongestants and multi-symptom cold remedies that contain decongestants — such as pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, phenylephrine, naphazoline and oxymetazoline.


  • Choose a cold medication designed for people who have high blood pressure. Some cold medications, such as Coricidin HBP, don’t contain decongestants. However, these medications may contain other powerful drugs, like dextromethorphan (DXM), that can be dangerous if you take too much. Follow the dosing instructions carefully.
  • Take a pain reliever. To relieve a fever, sore throat, headache or body aches, try aspirin or acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol).
  • Try zinc acetate lozenges.  A 2008 Wayne State University study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases reported: “Zinc acetate preparation was significantly effective in decreasing the average duration of cold symptoms with no observable side effects.
  • Use saline nasal spray. To relieve nasal congestion, try saline nasal spray. The spray can help flush your sinuses.
  • Soothe your throat. To relieve a sore or scratchy throat, gargle with warm salt water or drink warm water with lemon juice and honey.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, tea and soup can help clear your lungs of phlegm and mucus.* See Mary’s note in comments if you have heart failure
  • Increase the humidity in your home. Use a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer to moisten the air and ease congestion and coughing.
  • Get plenty of rest. If you’re not feeling well, take it easy.

Most importantly, call your doctor if your signs and symptoms get worse instead of better, or last more than 10 days.

See also: 

6 thoughts on “Is it the flu or the common cold?

  1. Just a thought – Perhaps put a disclaimer note* on the suggestion… Drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, tea and soup can help clear your lungs of phlegm and mucus. If you are diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure, you still have to limit/monitor your restrictive fluid intake regardless. CHF is a creature all onto its own.

    You are a very committed blogger and much more than I could be! When/if I’m that sick, I’d have to hang a virtual sign on my page…“Very Sick…Do Not Disturb…Will be back some day!” Hoping for a safe and steady recovery for you 🙂


    1. Hi Mary – good point about the fluid intake for CHF patients – have added * to the original list. CHF patients should drink no more than 2 litres of fluids (in total) per day. More info here.

      BTW, I started writing this a week ago, in short little installments over several days as I was able to. Am feeling better each day.


  2. Carolyn, I have to add my two bits worth. The “24 hr flu” that you often hear people discuss, main symptoms vomiting and diarrhea, is not a flu, I learned many years ago in a FoodSafe course that it is likely food poisoning (from the home, I might add).

    Flu is a knock you down and keep you down illness.


  3. A nasal spray is good for relieving some symptoms. But if you buy an OTC brand be sure you buy one that’s preservative free.

    (Why would you (rhetorical) when it’s so easy and cheap to make at home?)
    There are OTC nasal sprays that ARE presevative free– in case that’s easier for you.

    “A preservative-free alternative to standard nasal sprays — which routinely use preservatives that can cause unwanted side effects, such as allergies or damage to the mucosal lining of the nose — was found to be both safe and well-tolerated, in a short-term study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

    The alternative acidified solution also maintained sterility in the applicator bottle without the use of the chemical preservatives, according to the study, published Nov. 15 in the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery

    Here’s that small study:

    “However, preservatives may cause local hypersensitivity or toxic effects at mucosal surfaces. Benzalkonium chloride, the most widely used preservative, has been associated with sinonasal mucosal injury, nasal squamous metaplasia, ciliary dysmotility,genotoxicity, and other untoward adverse effects. Data also suggest toxic effects of phenylcarbinol, another common preservative. Despite the evidence showing that benzalkonium chloride and other preservatives can be damaging to human and animal tissues, preservatives are in widespread use in over-the-counter and prescription preparations. These agents have concentrations of preservatives at potentially toxic levels.”


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