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Distinguishing Flu From the Common Cold

November 1st, 2011


It's important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms. A cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to weeks. The flu can also result in serious health problems such as pneumonia and hospitalizations

Cold symptoms usually begin with a sore throat, which usually resolves after a day or two. Nasal symptoms, runny nose, and congestion follow, along with a cough by the fourth and fifth days. Fever is uncommon in adults, but possible, whereas children are more likely to have a fever with a cold.

Several hundred different viruses may cause your cold symptoms.

How long do cold symptoms last?

Cold symptoms usually last for about a week. During the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are contagious. If cold symptoms do not seem to be improving after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics, or it may mean you have allergies.

Sometimes you may mistake cold symptoms for allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection. If your cold symptoms begin quickly and are improving after a week, then it is usually a cold, not allergy. If your cold symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, check with your doctor to see if you have developed an allergy or sinusitis.

Common Flu Symptoms

Flu symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough. Swine flu in particular is also associated with vomiting and diarrhea.

Most flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it's not uncommon to feel fatigued and tired for weeks. A possible complication of the flu is pneumonia, especially in the young, elderly, or people with lung or heart problems. If you notice shortness of breath, you should let your doctor know. Recurring fever after initially resolution may mean you have pneumonia.

Just like cold viruses, flu viruses enter your body through the mucous membranes of your nose, eyes, or mouth. Every time you touch your hand to one of these areas, you could be infecting yourself with a virus.  Therefore it very important to keep your hands clean with frequent washing to prevent both flu and cold symptoms.

Is it flu or cold symptoms?

Flu symptoms can be similar to cold symptoms with nasal congestion, cough, aches, and malaise. However, fever is unusual with a cold. With flu symptoms, you will probably have a fever initially. Body and muscle aches are also more common with the flu. See the table below to help you distinguish between the two.

 

Symptoms

Cold

Flu

Fever

Sometimes, usually mild

Usual; higher (100-102 F; occasionally higher, especially in young children); lasts 3 to 4 days

Headache

Occasionally

Common

General Aches, Pains

Slight

Usual; often severe

Fatigue, Weakness

Sometimes

Usual; can last 2 to 3 weeks

Extreme Exhaustion

Unlikely

Usual; at the beginning of the illness

Stuffy Nose

Common

Sometimes

Sneezing

Usual

Sometimes

Sore Throat

Common

Sometimes

Chest Discomfort, Cough

Mild to moderate; hacking cough

Common; can become severe

Complications

Sinus congestion; middle ear infection

Sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infection, pneumonia; can be life-threatening

Prevention

Wash your hands often; avoid close contact with anyone with a cold

Wash your hands often; avoid close contact with anyone who has flu symptoms; get the annual flu vaccine

Treatment

Decongestants; pain reliever/fever reducer medicines

Decongestants, pain relievers, or fever reducers are available over the counter; over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to young children; prescription antiviral drugs for flu may be given in some cases; call your doctor for more information about treatment.

Usually, the time of year will give you some sense of what you're dealing with. The standard flu season runs from fall to spring of the next year.

When to call the doctor with flu or cold symptoms:

If you already have flu or cold symptoms, it's important to call your doctor if you also have any of the following severe symptoms:

  • Persistent fever: This can be a sign of another bacterial infection that should be treated.
  • Painful swallowing: Although a sore throat from a cold or flu can cause mild discomfort, severe pain could mean strep throat
  • Persistent coughing: When a cough doesn't go away after two or three weeks, it could be bronchitis, which may need an antibiotic. Postnasal drip, and asthma can also cause persistent coughing.
  • Persistent congestion and headaches: When colds and allergies cause congestion and blockage of sinus passages, they can lead to sinus infection

Seek medical attention immediately if you have the following symptoms:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Severe headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Persistent vomiting

In children, the following symptoms are ominous and will need to be evaluated immediately:

  • Difficulty or rapid breathing
  • Bluish discoloration skin
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Listlessness and abnormal interaction
  • Extreme irritability or distress
  • Recurrent and worsening symptoms
  • Fever with a rash

Preventing flu or cold symptoms

The most important prevention measure is frequent hand washing.Additionally, you can also get a flu vaccine to prevent seasonal influenza. Seasonal flu activity in the United States generally peaks between late December and early March. Within two weeks of getting a flu vaccine, antibodies develop in your body and provide protection against flu. Children receiving the vaccine for the first time need two doses delivered one month apart.

Antiviral medicine may also help prevent flu if you have been exposed to someone with flu symptoms.

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