Is it a Cold or the Flu?

By December 9, 2016Health Tips

During this time of the year, many eDoc clients write in to ask if their symptoms are more suggestive of a cold or with the flu.  While both are caused by viruses, influenza or “flu” generally causes more severe manifestations than the common cold.  Flu is characterized by the sudden onset of body aches, fever and respiratory symptoms.  Colds on the other hand are more likely to cause upper respiratory tract symptoms such as runny nose and sore throat.  The following chart should help to clarify the differences between these two illnesses:

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Uncommon Common, may be as high
as 102-104 degrees
Headache Uncommon Common
Muscle aches Uncommon Common, often severe
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Common, may last up to 2 weeks
Cough Mild to moderate Moderate to severe
Stuffy nose Common Occasionally
Sneezing Common Occasionally
Sore Throat Common Occasionally

  In most cases, people with either a cold or the flu improve on their own without specific treatment.  Influenza, however, can be a life-threatening illness, particularly in those with chronic illnesses or in the very young or elderly. These individuals should consult their health-care provider should they develop flu-like symptoms. There are three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for use in acute influenza cases:  Relenza (zanamivir), Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Rapivab (peramivir). These are prescription medications, and a doctor should be consulted before the drugs are used. The method of delivery, dosages, and duration of treatment are different for each of these. As of yet, there are no antiviral medications available for treating the common cold. Treatment is primarily symptomatic with antihistamine/decongestants for the runny nose, analgesic lozenges for sore throat and acetaminophen or ibuprofen for body aches.

The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to receive the influenza vaccine (“flu shot”) each year.  No such vaccine against the common cold currently exists.  This is because over 200 different
viruses can be responsible for causing cold symptoms and scientists have yet to develop a vaccine that will protect people against all of them.  The CDC offers the following suggestions to help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses from either colds or the flu:

  1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  2. Stay home when you are sick.  This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.
  3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  4. Clean your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  6. Practice other good health habits.  Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Sources for article:
Flu Symptoms & Complications from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

If you have any questions about colds or flu, please log into your account and send us your question. We are here to help.

Kent Davidson MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Reviewed and Approved by Charles W. Smith MD, Medical Director on December 9, 2016.

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