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Colds and Flu

A man taking his own temperature

Let us face it, coming down with a virus can leave you feeling miserable. Decreased energy and productivity, along with schedule cancellations including time lost from work can take a toll on us. A common question often posed to doctors from their patients is whether one's symptoms indicate having a cold or the flu. Because there are similarities as well as some overlap in the symptoms, it is no wonder that we find it difficult to know the difference. Luckily, there are some general guidelines, which can help you figure out if you may have a cold or the flu.  This can further assist in creating the proper treatment plan.

Colds and flu are both considered respiratory illnesses, but it is important to understand that different viruses are responsible for each one of them. Typically, getting the flu is worse than catching a cold, due to the symptoms can be more severe, making it extremely difficult to carry on your daily activities. Having a cold can certainly make it challenging to go about your daily routine. However, because a cold usually does not come with the same degree of intensity as the flu, many people are able to go to work and take care of their families and other important responsibilities.

If you have a cold, you will often have a sore throat and nasal symptoms including congestion or a runny nose. You may develop a cough within a few days. Even though it is not always the case, some people run a low-grade fever when they have a cold. The common cold generally lasts about a week to 10 days. If symptoms do not improve or get increasingly worse after that time, you may have developed a secondary (bacterial) infection or you may be suffering from allergies. Your doctor will be able to determine what may be contributing to your continued illness.

If you suffer from the flu, your symptoms will most likely have a rapid and more intense onset. Like a cold, symptoms can include a sore throat, congestion or a runny nose and a cough. Unlike a cold, the flu typically also comes with a definite fever and chills, significant body aches and fatigue, and often a headache. Some flu viruses also include symptoms of vomiting and/or diarrhea. The flu usually lasts between 2 and 5 days. Colds usually clear up without any additional problems. However, the flu can result in further health complications including sinusitis, ear infections or other bacterial infections, or pneumonia. Certain individuals are more susceptible to these complications with young children, the elderly, and those with lung and heart concerns being most vulnerable.

Since it is sometimes hard to know if you have a cold or the flu, you might want to check with your doctor to be sure. If you suspect that you may have the flu, your doctor can perform a test soon after the onset of your symptoms to confirm the diagnosis. Your doctor may possibly prescribe antiviral drugs if you have the flu, which can reduce the symptoms and duration of your illness.

Treatment for both colds and flu includes increased rest, drinking fluids to stay hydrated, and pain/fever reliever as well as other over-the-counter medications for symptom management. If you have developed a secondary infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to get rid of the infection and help you get well. Prevention is an important part of avoiding and not further spreading cold and flu viruses. Washing hands thoroughly and avoiding others if you or they are ill is very important. In addition, talk with your doctor about whether or not the flu shot is right for you.