Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to Tell if it's the Common Cold or Flu

The "I feel awful" season is upon us.  I challenge any reader to say they don't know someone who is out sick with some type of upper respiratory infection.  Congestion, cough, body aches and fatigue can hit even if you wash your hands and take precautions.  So how can you tell if it is a viral cold or influenza?  And does it really matter since they are both viruses?

The symptoms of a cold or the flu can be quite similar and hard to tell the difference but here are some differentiating tips that doctors know and you can use too.  First, did it start slowly with a scratchy sore throat, sneezing and then build over a couple of days?  If you answered yes, it is probably a viral "cold".  The influenza virus usually hits with a slam.  You awaken feeling awful with body aches, fever and like you were "hit with a Mack truck".   People with the flu can tell you almost what hour they got sick and influenza is always respiratory.  That means a racking cough and maybe even vomiting.  The flu generally brings a fever and maybe even chills.

H1N1 virus
It is important to try and tell the difference because we can often lessen the flu symptoms if we catch it early and use the anti-viral; Tamiflu.  This year 90% of the flu cases are H1N1.  This years strain affects children and young adults and any flu is bad for people that have underlying lung problems or are pregnant or immune-compromised.

Both a cold virus and influenza last about 10 days.  Illness that goes longer should be evaluated by your physician.  For either infection listen to your body.  Rest, drink lots of water and herbal tea with honey.  Ibuprofen or Aleve are good for body aching and fever.

 Do not ask your doctor for antibiotics.  They will not help and will likely destroy your own good bacteria that keeps your intestines healthy

But  you can still get vaccinated for influenza: The vaccine lowers your chance of getting the flu by 60-65 percent. And if you do get it, your symptoms will likely be mild.

Wash your hands, make sure you are getting enough sleep, avoid crowds and eat an apple a day to stay healthy through cold and flu season.


Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

Just say no...
to antibiotics for colds and 'flus'. Will we ever break the public (and our)habit of this practice? Yes, I know that many patients demand them, and we physicians, acquiesce too readily, but why take a remedy that offers risk but no reward?

Anonymous said...

I agree that for viruses antibiotics don't work. That being said during the flu season I have had times where I have had a serious long lasting sinus infection that needed an antibotic. Upon seening an internist I was told If I didn't come in and get on an antibiotic the puss seen in my ears would have taken a month to go away. Also once I had severe strep throat that the physician gave an antibiotic for, so it really depends on an exam what is indicated rather then just saying no.

James said...

I find patients are not as demanding when it comes to antibiotics. They continue to demand all manner of other unnecessary tests and treatments such as MRI's for back pain and testosterone supplementation.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...


Patients can lean hard for antibiotics, especially if it's their belief that they need them for their 'colds' and prior MD's have provided them consistently.

Sam Walker said...

Prevention is always better than cure. If you have a weak immune system it is best to get a flu vaccine as early as possible to reduce your risk of contracting this kind of life threatening respiratory disease. Along with a vaccine plan, a healthy lifestyle would do us countless of benefits. We all have a choice. We are what we are right now because we choose to live that way. Choose life and live healthy to enjoy it!

Adrian said...

It's not always easy to determine if you have a cold or the flu, but knowing the difference helps treatment work quicker at ending your symptoms. Great article, thanks for sharing.

Noel said...

Hi there, really great simple post, I love it. Could I possibly request any more discussion of the fact they are both viruses? What are the physical differences between the categories (given they both entail mutations/within-category variation in genetic code, I would presume)? How do these link to the symptoms produced, the way treated or the way they spread? Or any info really!

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