Colds and the flu often occur around the same time of year and both have similar, unpleasant symptoms. While it can be hard to differentiate between the two, it’s important to pinpoint your symptoms to determine the best course of treatment.
“Distinguishing between a cold and the flu can be difficult because many of the symptoms overlap,” said Chad Sherwood, M.D., chief medical officer at Urgent Team Family of Urgent Care & Walk-in Centers. “A sudden onset of fever and body aches are some of the most common differentiators, although not everyone with flu will have both these symptoms. Getting to a healthcare provider for testing within 48 hours of experiencing symptoms can help, as there are medications that can minimize the symptoms of flu when action is taken quickly.”
Cold vs. Flu
While both a cold and the flu generally attack the respiratory system producing many or all of the same symptoms, flu can affect the entire body and generally lasts longer.
To confirm a diagnosis of flu, a healthcare provider will swab your nose or throat to test for the virus. For the most accurate results, the test should be performed shortly after the onset of symptoms.
Treatment for cold symptoms are available through over-the-counter medications.
- Antihistamines can help control a running nose, sneezing and watery eyes.
- Decongestants relieve nasal and sinus congestion.
- Acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines reduce pain, fever, and inflammation.
- Cough syrup/cough drops can soothe the throat and decrease coughing
- Expectorants loosen mucus from the respiratory tract, alleviating chest congestion and discomfort.
Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and monitor for symptoms that last longer than five to seven days, advised Dr. Sherwood. If symptoms persist, your cold may have developed into an advanced respiratory illness in the form of an ear infection, sinus infection or bronchitis. If this occurs, you should seek treatment.
A mild case of the flu can be treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medication. If your case of flu is more severe, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medications. Anti-nausea medications help with stomach discomfort and vomiting, while acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines reduce pain, fever and inflammation.
Antiviral medications, such as Tamiflu®, Relenza® or Rapivab®, shorten the duration of the flu and lessen the serious complications; however, antiviral medications work best when started within 48 hours of getting sick. These medications are particularly important for children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses. Our centers can provide prescriptions for these antiviral medications.
As with a cold, if symptoms persist longer than three to five days, or become increasingly severe (difficulty breathing, confusion, irritability, decreased responsiveness), see your healthcare provider. The flu can develop into bronchitis or pneumonia, particularly in patients who are pregnant, older or have compromised immune systems, and may require more intense medical treatment or even hospitalization.
The best way to avoid contracting the flu is to get an annual flu shot. Unfortunately, there is no immunization against the cold, but washing your hands frequently, not touching your face with your hands, and avoiding contact with people who have a cold can be a strong defense.