Cold vs. flu
Is it a cold or the flu? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but it’s important to know the difference because the flu can have serious complications such as pneumonia and even cause death.
Annual flu-related deaths in the United States have ranged from a low of 3,000 to a high of 49,000 over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those deaths occur among high-risk groups with pulmonary disease (such as asthma or COPD), diabetes and heart disease.
Knowing the difference helps find the most appropriate treatment to shorten the duration and reduce the severity of your illness.
Both the common cold and influenza are respiratory illnesses, but caused by different viruses. As respiratory illnesses, they often share symptoms such as coughing, headaches, earaches, sore throats, stuffy or runny noses, sneezing, achiness and fatigue.
It can be nearly impossible to tell them apart based on symptoms, but here are some important clues:
• In general, flu symptoms are more severe;
• Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly, while the onset of cold symptoms is more gradual. If you feel like you have been hit by a truck, you probably have the flu, and;
• While you may have a mild fever with a cold, a person with the flu generally runs a fever with a body temperature between 100 and 102, or higher.
If there’s any doubt, we can take a nasal swab in our office to help confirm a flu diagnosis.
We can prescribe antiviral medications such as Tamiflu or Relenza to shorten the duration of the flu, but they need to be started within 48 hours of getting sick to be effective. They should not replace vaccines as a primary means of prevention.
Flu season in Ohio can begin as early as October and run as late as May. Only now are we beginning to see sporadic activity this flu season, meaning it is not too late to get your flu shot. It usually takes about two weeks for the shot to begin provide immunity, in plenty of time for peak flu season usually in January and February. The vaccine is the single best way to prevent the flu and is readily available from your physician or at any one of a number of pharmacies. The CDC offers a locator guide for flu shots by zip code at flu.gov.
Cold and flu viruses enter the body the same way – through mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth. Every time you touch one of these areas, you could be infecting yourself. That’s why we recommend thorough, frequent hand washing as a prevention strategy for both colds and flu. About 80 percent of all contagious diseases are transmitted by touch because our hands are in constant contact with telephones, doorknobs, faucet handles and other repositories of germs.
Regardless of your illness, we recommend that you see your physician if your symptoms do not improve after three to five days, if they change or worsen, or if you show any signs of respiratory distress such as shortness of breath.
Persistent symptoms may indicate a complication such as a bacterial infection that requires an antibiotic. For instance, painful swallowing may mean you have strep throat or persistent coughing could be bronchitis.
You can remain healthy and active this flu season with some common-sense strategies. But the most important thing you can do is get your flu shot. It’s not too late.
Dr. Gregory Whisman, is a board-certified family medicine physician at Powell Family Medicine and Lewis Center Medical Group. He is also an active member of the Grady Memorial Hospital medical staff.