Getting a cold and the flu at the same time is possible. And while it sounds awful, it hardly ever happens, according to a new study from the UK. Rhinoviruses that cause colds and influenza viruses that cause flu are locked in a death struggle for your respiratory real estate, so much so that the flu usually kicks rhinoviruses, well, out in the cold.
“Our key finding shows that competition with flu in winter may explain why cold infections tend to diminish during winter seasons,” Dr. Sema Nickbakhsh, a researcher at University of Glasgow, said in a press release. “One really striking pattern in our data is the decline in cases of the respiratory virus rhinovirus, which is typically a mild common cold-causing virus, occurring during winter, around the time that flu activity increases. In the same way as lions and spotted hyenas compete for food resources, we believe respiratory viruses may be competing for resources in the respiratory tract.”
Researchers based the study on both population-level statistics and researching the behavior of individual infections. The study data comprised more than 44,000 cases of respiratory infection tested by Great Britain’s National Health Service from 2005-2013. The Glasgow scientists used data about 11 different types of rhinovirus and influenza strains, according to PNAS (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), where the study was published.
Interestingly, the cold viruses seem to cooperate with one another, but tend to get edged out by competition from flu viruses. This suggests that the drop in colds in late winter not only corresponds with a rise in flu infections, but is caused by the rise in flu infections, Dr. Nickbakhsh said.
According to Dr. Pablo Murcia, another researcher on the study, this information about viruses’ ability to duke it out will help better prepare for cold and flu season.
“By understanding these interactions, that can help you to plan ahead when it comes to preparedness on a public health level,” Murcia said in the release.
How to Prevent Cold and Flu Infections
The causes of the flu are mainly influenza viruses belonging to either influenza A or influenza B types of viruses, said MedicineNet author Charles Patrick Davis; MD, PhD. The causes of colds are usually rhinoviruses, but over 200 types of viruses are capable of causing the common cold. Risk factors for the common cold and flu are similar or identical. Risk factors include the following:
- Contact with a person who has either a cold or the flu — especially contact with mucus membranes, saliva, and/or items that an infected person has touched (for example, towels, toothbrushes, and cups)
- Contact with other objects that may be touched by an infected person such as handrails, doorknobs, and other high-use items
- Risk is increased in individuals with compromised immune systems.
- In general, the young and the old are usually more susceptible to these viruses.
- Stress, smoking, and lack of sleep can increase your risk for getting these viral infections.
- Individuals who do not receive the yearly flu vaccine are more likely to risk getting infected with a flu virus; unfortunately, because of the huge number of viruses that may cause a cold, there is no vaccine available commercially against the cold viruses.
“Yes, it is possible to prevent the common cold or the flu, but it is not easy to do so if you live in crowded conditions where it’s almost impossible to constantly avoid contact with any items touched by individuals with a common cold or the flu,” Dr. Davis said. “The ways to prevent (or more realistically, reduce the chance of getting) the common cold and/or the flu are essentially the same. Strict hand washing and avoiding close contact with infected individuals and/or the items they touch is the most effective way to prevent or reduce the chance of infection with the viruses that cause these diseases.”
Vaccination with the yearly updated flu vaccine is another way to prevent or reduce the chance of infection with influenza viruses. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against the hundreds of common cold virus species, Dr. Davis said.
Luckily, in most individuals, the prognosis for the common cold and the flu are good to excellent. However, individuals with moderate to severe flu may have a fair to poor prognosis, depending upon how quickly the patient is diagnosed and treated. The poor prognosis for some severe flu infections is usually due to respiratory problems that become complicated to treat (for example, pneumonia) and may require hospitalization in an intensive care unit (ICU), Dr. Davis said.