Common Cold vs. the Flu: how can you tell the difference?

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Jeffrey Smith, MD

Resident

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A to Z: Common Cold vs. the Flu: how can you tell the difference?

Common Cold vs. the Flu: how can you tell the difference?

March 09, 2017
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This is the time of the year when respiratory illnesses drag us down, causing endless coughing fits and sore throats. Seems like everyone – at work, the grocery store, and in school – is sick.

It can be hard to tell if you have a cold or something more serious like the flu. They share some of the same symptoms and both are caused by viruses. You most likely have a cold if you have a sore throat, stuffy nose, sneezing, and a hacking cough. You could also have fever, feel weaker than usual, and have a few aches and pains.

Your best bet is to get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and treat your symptoms with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and over-the-counter cough or cold medicines. You should feel better
in three or four days. If you don’t, then call your doctor.

The flu can be a much more serious illness. If you have fever, headache, achy joints or muscles, extreme weakness and fatigue, and a severe cough, it’s probably the flu.

It’s important to know the difference, because effective anti-viral drugs are available for the flu virus, but not for cold viruses. The flu can make you miserable for as long as two weeks, but anti-viral drugs taken within 48 hours after symptoms appear can help reduce both the duration and severity of your illness.

Some people who get the flu also have a high risk for developing severe complications like pneumonia. These include young children, adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions.

If you think you have the flu, see your doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible. By knowing the difference between a cold and the flu, you can get appropriate treatment and be back on your feet in no time.

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