Coordinated Health

Cold vs Flu

Cold vs Flu

By: Nathan Johnson, MD   October 3, 2016

Although the common cold and flu share similar symptoms, they are actually two different conditions. The symptoms of a cold develop slowly and can include: fever up to 102°F, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, sneezing, fatigue, muscle aches, headache and watery eyes. Flu symptoms are typically more severe and appear suddenly. Fever is often over 102°F with more intense body aches. If you have the flu – getting a prescription for an antiviral in the first two days of symptoms can have modest benefits, reducing the duration of your illness by about ½ to a full day.

Though you may think that antibiotics would help, antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses like the cold and flu. Antibiotics can upset the body’s natural balance of good and bad bacteria. Some of the more common side effects of antibiotics include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and vaginal infections. Wide use of antibiotics breeds bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics.  If you do take an antibiotic, take it with a probiotic food or supplement, to rebuild your healthy bacteria.

You may benefit from an antibiotic if you have: sinus infection that doesn’t get better in 10 days, or it gets better and then suddenly gets worse; Fever of 102° F, or fever over 100.6° F for 3 days or more; shortness of breath with green or yellow mucous; severe, rapid coughing with a “whoop” ; Sudden throat pain, pain when swallowing and swollen glands. These symptoms may indicate bacterial sinusitis, pneumonia, whooping cough or strep throat and should be evaluated.

The treatment for colds is based on controlling the symptoms

  • Use a humidifier and clean it daily.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
  • Ease pain and reduce fever with:Acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) Ibuprofen (Advil and generic). Be careful when taking over-the-counter cold or flu medicines and Tylenol at the same time. Many of these medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol and you don’t want to double your dose
  • For nasal discomfort use saline (salt water) drops or spray.
  • To soothe a sore throat, gargle with salt water, drink warm beverages, or eat or drink something cool.
  • To ease a cough, breathe steam from a kettle or shower. For mild, short-term relief, try an over-the-counter cough medicine that has dextromethorphan.   A vapor rub containing camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil (Vick Vapor Rub) or buckwheat honey can also help with the cough.
  • Zinc gluconate lozenges or Echinacea may reduce the duration of colds, but studies are mixed.

You can’t always avoid getting sick in cold and flu season, but there are ways to reduce your risk

  • Wash your hands often and well with plain soap and water or hand sanitizer
  • Flu (influenza) vaccine. Get this once a year. October or November is best.
  • Pneumonia vaccine. When you turn 65, get two shots 6 months apart.
  • Tdap vaccine for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). All adults should get this once, and then get a booster shot every 10 years.
  • Get extra sleep. Scientist at UCSF tracked the sleep of a 164 participants and then exposed them to the cold virus. Those who averaged less than 5 hours of sleep as measured by a Fitbit type device got sick 45% of the time. Only 17% of those with over 7 hours sleeping got sick.
  • Control your stress. The more stressed you are the more susceptible you are to infections. Regular exercise and mindfulness meditation have both been demonstrated to reduce infection rates.
  • Taking at least 1 g of vitamin C per day has been shown to reduce colds in several studies.




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