Ask the Expert: Is it the cold or the flu?

Sick man on couch drinking tea

Question: How do I know if I have a cold or the flu?

Featuring Frank Benes, MD

Answer: The symptoms of a cold and the flu are often very similar and initially may be difficult to tell apart: muscle aches, cough and chest discomfort are frequently present in both illnesses.

It’s a cold if you have a runny or stuffy nose and a sore throat. If your symptoms include a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you feel achy all over, have chills, headache and feel fatigued, you probably have the flu. Overall, flu symptoms are more severe than those of a cold.

A virus that affects the respiratory system causes both illnesses. It spreads from person to person by direct contact or through coughing and sneezing, which transmits the virus through droplets in the air. Because viruses cause the infections, they will not respond to antibiotic treatment.

The initial treatment for both illnesses should include:

  • Lots of fluids
  • Plenty of rest
  • Over-the-counter cough medicines and decongestants as needed.

You should visit your physician as soon as possible if the symptoms last more than a week, you have a high fever, a cough producing a colored sputum or phlegm, difficulty breathing or dehydration.

Most people who contract a cold or flu will recover within one to two weeks. Occasionally, people with the flu develop life-threatening illnesses, such as pneumonia or severe dehydration. It can also cause chronic medical conditions to worsen. When this happens, a doctor will admit the person to the hospital for treatment.

Flu Vaccination

The best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated every year. Vaccinations are typically available in October/November each year, prior to the start of the flu season. The flu season typically runs from December through March and peaks in January. Getting your flu shot early is best but getting a flu shot later during the season may still provide protection.

Emergency physicians highly recommend flu vaccinations for people at high risk of having serious flu complications and people who live with or care for high flu-risk individuals.

Persons in the high-risk category include:

  • Children 6 months through age 5
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone age 50 and older
  • Those with chronic medical conditions
  • Persons in nursing homes and long-term care facilities

Getting the flu shot does not guarantee that you will not get the flu, but generally, those people who get the flu after getting a flu shot have a milder illness.

Frank Benes, MD, is Emergency department medical director at Banner Baywood Medical Center.
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