Coordinated Health

How to Tell the Difference Between the Flu and a Cold

How to Tell the Difference Between the Flu and a Cold

By:    October 8, 2018

It’s here. Again.

Along with frosty mornings, pumpkin picking, and pie baking, inevitably comes cold and flu season. It’s time to stock up on tissues.

But when the symptoms start, many people have a hard time telling if they actually have a cold or the flu. And it’s important to know the difference since a flu is often more severe and can sometimes lead to other health problems like pneumonia. We talked to Dr. Joseph Laureti, primary care physician at Coordinated Health, to find out how to identify your symptoms and what to do to get back on your feet faster.

How You End up Sick in the First Place

Flu and colds are both caused by viruses, but they’re different viruses. The viruses are spread through other people, things they’ve touched, and the air. “The most common form of contact is through the air,” Dr. Laureti says. “That’s why we always stress that people cover their coughs and sneezes.”

That means that washing your hands, while very important, will only get you so far. We all need to work together to limit the spread of the virus by covering coughs and sneezes and staying home from work and school when we’re sick.

And of course, you should always get the flu shot if you’re able. You’ve probably heard that it won’t protect you 100 percent, and that’s true, but some protection is still better than none. “A lot of people don’t realize that if you get the flu after you’ve had a flu shot, the symptoms will be less severe,” Dr. Laureti adds.

Why We Always Get Flu and Cold in Winter

By the way, if you’ve been wondering why cold and flu are so much more common during fall and winter than at other times of the year, it’s because the weather plays a role in the viruses’ ability to survive. “The leading theory is that the viruses survive better in lower humidity and colder temperatures,” explains Dr. Laureti. “It really comes down to environment.”

Key Symptoms

The symptoms of cold and flu overlap, so it’s understandable that people get the two mixed up. Sneezing, stuffy nose, and sore throat come with both, though they’re all more common with a cold than the flu. Cough and chest congestion is likely to come with both viruses.  

The thing that really sets the two apart is how the symptoms start. “A cold comes on gradually and runs its course, but a flu hits you all of a sudden, usually with fever and chills,” Dr. Laureti says. Muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue are also more common with flu.

How to Know When to See a Doctor

Just about the last thing any of us want to do when we’re sick is get out of bed and drive to the doctor’s office. But really, you should make that appointment within the first 48 hours of symptom onset unless you’re certain it’s a cold.

“The flu can only be diagnosed through testing. Once we know for sure that a patient has the flu, we can prescribe Tamiflu, which can really reduce the amount of time you’re sick,” recommends Dr. Laureti.

He adds that you definitely need to get to the doctor ASAP if you’re experiencing severe symptoms like trouble breathing, high fever, and trouble keeping fluids in or dehydration. Flu can develop into pneumonia, bronchitis, or other problems and you don’t want to take any risks.

Recovering at Home

If you do get the flu, it’s important to drink plenty of water, get a lot of rest, and wash your hands often. If you have a fever, definitely stay home from work or school. Most people will feel better after a couple of days, though the virus usually lasts about seven days. Dr. Laureti advises checking with your primary care physician before taking over-the-counter flu and cold medications because they can interfere with your usual prescriptions and pre-existing conditions.

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