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The Difference Between Cold and Flu: Symptoms and Treatment

By Stephanie Dube Dwilson December 12, 2017 Posted in: Family Health , Article

When researching the difference between cold and flu, you'll quickly realize that these two illnesses overlap quite a bit. For the best ways to treat one versus the other, here is some expert insight courtesy of Srilakshmi Madhusudhan, MD, a family medicine practitioner at Dignity Health Medical Group — Bakersfield, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation.

What Colds and the Flu Feel Like

Cold and flu symptoms are very similar — both can involve chills, headaches, body aches, and a sore throat. Both illnesses typically last 7-10 days, but for some unlucky people, flu symptoms can last longer — even up to a few weeks. In many ways, the flu will simply feel like a more severe cold.

"For a lot of people, you're unlikely to know whether it's a cold or flu," Dr. Madhusudhan explained. "If you have high fever, if you're feeling unusually more fatigued, or feeling worse than normal cold symptoms, you might get checked to see if it's the flu."

At-Home Treatment Options

Whether you have the cold or the flu, Dr. Madhusudhan recommends the same type of treatment: over-the-counter medicines. But, she went on to explain, their real purpose is treating the symptoms, not ridding you of the illness in its entirety. "They don't lessen the length of the illness," she said. "The virus itself still takes its own course."

Recommended treatments include acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever or ear pain, and antihistamines for nasal conditions. You can also gargle with salt water for a sore throat. Nasal washes are good for minor nasal conditions, while neti pots are better for more severe, long-lasting nasal conditions like sinusitis. Dr. Madhusudhan notes that certain decongestant nasal sprays should only be used for a few days, as some can actually make your symptoms worse after long-term exposure.

Mothers of small children should be cautious, she added. Read the labels carefully, and only give children's medication to kids. Be very careful with the dosage as well — only use the cup or spoon that comes with the medicine.

When Should You See a Doctor?

If your symptoms are mild, you likely don't have to see your doctor unless you're in a high-risk group. Most doctors have a test that tells whether you have the flu within five minutes. If you do, an antiviral can help. "If you are seen within 48 hours of symptoms starting, it's more effective," Dr. Madhusudhan said. "As with any antiviral medications, they reduce the severity and lessen the course of the virus by a day or two. They also can prevent severe illnesses like pneumonia."

People in higher-risk groups are especially encouraged to see their doctor if they suspect they have the flu: those with asthma, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or those who are immunocompromised. If you're not in a high-risk group, you should see a doctor if your symptoms worsen to determine whether you have a secondary infection, like pneumonia. "Typically, any time there's a high fever — I would say more than 102 or 103 — that definitely needs to be evaluated," Dr. Madhusudhan said. In addition to a high fever and chills, other signs of pneumonia may include a lot of coughing, phlegm, and pain on one side of the chest.

You should also consider getting a flu vaccine. The CDC recommends the vaccine for everyone over six months of age, and it's never too late to get yours. Flu season typically starts in October and lasts until the end of March, but sometimes can last into May. Even if you're in the middle of the season, the vaccine can still help.

Remember: Stay Home if You're Sick

The difference between cold and flu is tough to determine. "Most of the time, it's very hard to know if it's influenza or a regular cold," Dr. Madhusudhan said. "If you're sick, you have to think it's contagious and follow all the precautions you'd take for the flu." So even if you don't know if you have the cold or the flu, it's best to stay home and not go to work or school. This will help you avoid spreading the virus and risking more people getting sick.

Whatever you're battling, get plenty of rest. If your symptoms worsen, talk to your doctor to get the answers you need for treatment and to feel better soon.

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