Do I have a Cold or the Flu?

Do you suffer from a cough? Are you experiencing nasal congestion? Are you running a fever? Do you have muscle aches? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might have either the common cold or the flu (influenza). Both these illnesses have very similar symptoms and are sometimes hard to differentiate. Both conditions make you feel miserable, but the flu causes more severe symptoms with a high fever (102-103 degrees) and muscle aches. Both conditions are diseases of the respiratory tract, and both illnesses are caused by a virus. The common cold is usually caused by the rhinovirus or coronavirus, and the flu is caused by the influenza A or the influenza B virus. Both illnesses are contagious, but the flu is highly contagious and can be deadly to certain individuals.

Common Influenza Symptoms

Flu and cold symptoms are very similar but do have some differences.

Frequent symptoms are listed below:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and body ache
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Nasal congestion
  • Chest pain from coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Generally do not feel well

Common Cold Symptoms:

  • Low-grade fever or no fever at all
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Ear pain
  • Face pressure
  • Watery and irritated eyes in some individuals

Who is at Risk for the Flu?

Everyone is in danger of contracting the flu. The flu is spread through the air when people cough or sneeze, by touch, and by nasal discharge. Children, adults, and the elderly of any race or ethnicity can develop the flu. Children and the elderly are more at risk due to immature or weakened immune systems as well as becoming dehydrated faster than other individuals who become sick. People are the most contagious a day before they develop symptoms. This is why the flu is so contagious. You may be feeling well and sharing food or drinks and then come down with the flu the next day. Anyone you were in contact with was exposed and could also easily come down with the symptoms.

The common cold is another illness in which everyone is at risk to develop. You catch a cold the same way as the flu. If someone coughs or sneezes into the air, shakes your hand or touches you, or touches a surface that you then touch (doorknobs, elevator buttons, shopping cart handles, etc.), you can then catch the virus. The average adult catches between two and four colds a year while children average four to eight colds a year. Children are at greater risk to catch a common cold due to their immature immune systems as well as a lack of proper handwashing.

What Will My Doctor Ask Me?

Your doctor is going to ask many questions about your respiratory tract as well as your health history and medications. He/she may also inquire if you have recently traveled outside of the country or to a state where the flu is more predominate. Other common questions your doctor will ask include:

  • How long have you been sick and when did it start?
  • Did it come on suddenly and feel like you were hit by a bus?
  • Have you been in contact with anyone who was diagnosed with the flu?
  • Did you get your annual flu shot?
  • Do you have nasal congestion and sneezing (more common in a cold)

How Do I Treat a Cold/The Flu

Both illnesses are similar, and so are the treatments. Since both diseases are caused by a virus, no antibiotics are necessary for either condition. Treatment is primarily focused on prevention and symptomatic treatment.

Tests

There is no test to evaluate for the common cold, but during flu season, your doctor may perform a rapid flu test in which he/she places a swab up your nose to see if you have the flu. The test takes ten minutes to run and will tell if you have influenza A or influenza B. They are both viruses with the same treatment, so the type doesn’t matter except for state reporting purposes.

Treatment

Prevention

The best and easiest way to treat the flu and a cold is to prevent it. Measures you can take to prevent you or a loved one from contracting the flu or a cold include:

  • Get a flu shot early in the season to prevent the flu before the illness hits the area
  • Perform proper handwashing. Wash your hands or sanitize them with hand cleaner after touching door knobs, carts, elevator buttons, etc. Also, wash them after blowing your nose or coughing.
  • Take a multi-vitamin daily

Anti-Viral

There is only one type of medication that may be prescribed to you if you have a positive flu test, and that is an antiviral like Tamiflu. If you have been sick for longer than forty-eight hours, Tamiflu will not be prescribed as treatment is only effective if started within the first two days of symptoms. Tamiflu is the drug of choice because it is effective against both influenza A & B and has a lower overall risk than similar medications. The antiviral helps shorten the length of time you have the illness, but unfortunately, does nothing to relieve your symptoms.

Medication

Since the flu and the common cold are similar symptoms, much of the medication to relieve symptoms are used in both conditions.

  • Oral decongestants such as Sudafed will be prescribed by your doctor to reduce nasal congestion and discharge
  • Cough medicines such as Delsym or Robitussin will be prescribed to help with a cough so you can sleep at night
  • Tylenol and Motrin are effective in reducing fever and overall body aches for both the flu and cold symptoms
  • Vitamin C helps shorten the length of a cold

Symptomatic Treatment

  • Use of a humidifier or a steamy shower will open up your airway passages
  • Drink plenty of water to keep secretions loose so you can cough them up
  • Warm fluids such as tea and chicken soup help soothe a sore throat as well as thin mucus
  • Use salt water gargles for a sore throat and cough
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Perform good handwashing

What Do I Need to Know About Cold & Flu? – Patient Education

  • Cold remedies will not cure a common cold – it is a virus that has to work its way out of your body which can take five to seven days
  • A cold is not treated with antibiotics
  • Stop smoking. Smoking causes you to catch a cold and the flu more often than the average person
  • Antihistamines do not work if you have a cold
  • Get a yearly flu shot – the flu shot does not give you the flu or autism
  • Honey is a natural cough suppressant. Take a teaspoon by mouth or put it in tea

Emergency Warning Signs/When to Follow Up

  • Follow up with your doctor if your cold symptoms do not improve in two to three weeks
  • Follow up with your doctor if your flu symptoms do not start to improve in ten days
  • Go to the emergency room if you are severely dehydrated with symptoms such as a dry mouth, decreased urine production, sunken eyes, confusion, extreme fatigue, and dizziness

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