Common Cold vs. Flu: How to Spot the Difference

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The flu and the common cold are both considered respiratory infections, caused by different viruses. According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 100 viruses can cause the common cold. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms that sometimes overlap, it can be hard to tell the difference.

What is a cold?

Colds come on gradually and are often much milder than the flu. You’ll typically feel better after about seven days after being infected, but symptoms can sometimes last up to two weeks. You can catch a cold at any time of year, but they’re most common during winter months because cold-causing viruses are attracted to low-humidity atmospheres.

Symptoms of a cold:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Headache or body aches
  • Mild tiredness

How to Prevent a Cold:

The most contagious time frame for someone with a cold is during the first two to four days after they’ve been exposed to the virus. Colds spread when someone who’s sick sprays infectious liquid through the air by coughing or sneezing. Because colds are so contagious, it’s best to stay away from anyone who is sick. There isn’t yet a vaccine for the common cold, however, there are methods for prevention. These include:

  • Avoid being near anyone who is sick or surfaces they’ve touched
  • Clean your hands with hot water and soap or hand sanitizer to rid of any germs
  • Avoid sharing any food, drinks or personal hygiene items with someone who is sick
  • Keep your hands away from your nose, eyes and mouth

How to Treat a Cold:

Because it is a viral infection, antibiotics are not an effective method for treatment. However, over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines, vitamin C and decongestants can relieve some of the uncomfortable symptoms of a cold. See a doctor if your cold hasn’t improved after a week or you begin to run a high fever.

 

What is the flu?

Influenza, or the flu, is usually seasonal and peaks during the winter months. Flu symptoms come on quickly and can be quite extreme. They usually last one to two weeks. Unlike the common cold, the flu can lead to more serious health problems, such as pneumonia. If you think you might have the flu, visit your doctor within 48 hours after showing symptoms.

Symptoms:

  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Moderate to high fever, although not everyone with the flu will run a fever
  • Sore throat
  • Shaking chills
  • Severe muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Stuffy and runny nose
  • Severe fatigue that may last up to two weeks
  • Nausea and vomiting (most common in children)

How to Prevent the Flu:

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting an annual flu shot at the very start of flu season, however, the vaccine does not guarantee your immunity. If the above symptoms are present, you should get checked out by a doctor. You can catch the flu in the same way you’d pick up a cold, which is by coming into contact with germs spread by the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. Active strains of influenza vary from year to year, which is why getting a flu shot is the best option for reducing your risk of getting sick and spreading it to others. 

Treatment:

Drinking fluids and getting plenty of rest are the best ways to treat the flu. In most cases, taking over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers may control the symptoms and help you feel better. If you are seen by a doctor within 48 hours of symptoms, there's an antiviral medication available that can be prescribed to assist in a speedy recovery.


Patient Plus Urgent Care – Get in, Get better.

When you’re sick or injured, whether routine or urgent, quality medical care should be easy to find and available when you need it. That’s the idea behind Patient Plus Urgent Care, with convenient locations in Mid City, Bocage and Southdowns.

Patient Plus treats most common illnesses and injuries — the sniffles, rashes, fevers, aches, breaks and other conditions that deserve prompt treatment, but aren’t serious enough to require a trip to the nearest emergency room. The clinics provide complete diagnostic services, including X-rays, EKGs and flu and strep tests. Other services include physicals, vaccinations and more. Patient Plus clinics are open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and patients never need to call first or make an appointment.