Blog | Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How to distinguish between a viral cold and the flu

The “I feel awful” season is upon us. I challenge any reader to say they don’t know someone who is out sick with some type of upper respiratory infection. Congestion, cough, body aches and fatigue can hit even if you wash your hands and take precautions. So how can you tell if it is a viral cold or influenza? And does it really matter since they are both viruses?

The symptoms of a cold or the flu can be quite similar and hard to tell the difference, but here are some differentiating tips that doctors know and you can use too. First, did it start slowly with a scratchy sore throat, sneezing and then build over a couple of days? If you answered yes, it is probably a viral “cold”. The influenza virus usually hits with a slam. You awaken feeling awful with body aches, fever and like you were “hit with a Mack truck”. People with the flu can tell you almost what hour they got sick and influenza is always respiratory. That means a racking cough and maybe even vomiting. The flu generally brings a fever and maybe even chills.

It is important to try and tell the difference because we can often lessen the flu symptoms if we catch it early and use the anti-viral drug Tamiflu. This year, 90% of the flu cases are H1N1. This year’s strain affects children and young adults and any flu is bad for people that have underlying lung problems or are pregnant or immune-compromised.

Both a cold virus and influenza last about 10 days. Illness that goes longer should be evaluated by your physician. For either infection listen to your body. Rest, drink lots of water and herbal tea with honey. Ibuprofen or Aleve are good for body aching and fever.

Do not ask your doctor for antibiotics. They will not help and will likely destroy your own good bacteria that keeps your intestines healthy.

But you can still get vaccinated for influenza: The vaccine lowers your chance of getting the flu by 60-65%. And if you do get it, your symptoms will likely be mild.

Wash your hands, make sure you are getting enough sleep, avoid crowds and eat an apple a day to stay healthy through cold and flu season.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.