Flu vs. the Common Cold: Symptoms and Treatment

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Most of us have, at one time or another, had the cold or flu. But depending on the severity of your symptoms, it may not be immediately clear which illness is ailing you, says Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and associate professor in the department of family medicine at Rowan University's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Sewell, New Jersey. "I see a lot of people with colds and the flu, and in the beginning, it may not be apparent which illness they have," she says. "Some of the symptoms overlap. The difference may not always be entirely clear."

In general, the flu can make you sick more suddenly, and its symptoms are typically more severe, Caudle says. In evaluating the differences between a cold versus the flu, it's important to keep in mind that a cold typically begins slowly, while the flu can hit you more suddenly.

Cold symptoms may include:

-- Runny or stuffy nose.

-- Sore throat.

-- Sneezing.

-- Cough.

-- Congestion.

-- Low-grade fever.

-- Malaise.

-- Slight body aches.

-- Mild headache.

"The flu comes on more abruptly, and the symptoms tend to be more severe," Caudle says. "Flu is just a lot worse. You're sicker than you are with a cold, and you tend to be sicker for longer. With the flu, you could be fine one day and wake up the next morning and feel like you've been hit by a bus."

Here are symptoms that are more common with the flu, but less likely with the common cold:

-- Chills.

-- Headache.

-- Body and muscle aches.

-- High fever.

Flu symptoms that often overlap with cold symptoms include:

-- Runny or stuffy nose.

-- Sore throat.

-- Cough.

[See: Signs of a Cold You Shouldn't Ignore.]

Flu and Cold Season

The flu season runs from early October through about mid-May. That means that's when you're most likely to get the flu, but you can contract it in other months too, Caudle says. There are two strains of influenza, A and B. The symptoms are the same for both, but some years, one strain -- A or B -- is more virulent.

You can get a common cold 12 months out of the year. Colds can be caused by more than 200 viruses.

Cold and Flu Complications

Colds and flu can both cause a host of health complications. But while the cold typically runs its course without causing serious, long-lasting health issues, the flu can be deadly. For the flu season that began in October 2019, as of the week that ended Jan. 11, 2020, there were an estimated 13 million influenza illnesses, 120,000 hospitalizations and 6,600 flu-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Complications of the common cold include:

-- Acute ear infection.

-- Acute bronchitis.

-- Asthma attack.

-- Acute sinusitis.

-- Pneumonia.

Complications caused by the flu include:

-- Sinus and ear infections.

-- Pneumonia.

-- Inflammation of the heart.

-- Inflammation of the brain.

-- Muscle issues.

It's important to keep in mind that influenza can be a serious illness in some people, says Dr. Carl J. Fichtenbaum, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

People with these health issues can suffer more severely from influenza:

-- Lung disease.

-- A heart condition.

-- Cancer.

-- Rheumatoid arthritis.

Age can also be a factor; people who are older than age 65 or younger than 5 can also suffer more severely from the flu. "The flu can be deadly in the elderly (people age 65 and older) because they do not have strong immune systems like younger people," says Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a geriatrician and founder of ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine, a house calls practice based in the San Francisco area.

On the other end of the age spectrum, children younger than age 5, and particularly those younger than 2, are at high risk of developing flu-related complications, according to the CDC.

Self-Care for Cold and Flu

In general, most people can manage a cold or the flu at home, Fichtenbaum says.

"It's important to avoid exposing others by staying home when you can," he says. "It's best to stay home from work or school and avoid going to public places like the grocery store, movies or restaurants when you're sick."

If you stay home sick, get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods.

[See: 14 Myths and Misconceptions About the Flu Vaccine.]

Medications for Cold and Flu

"There's no cure for the common cold or the flu, but medications can be helpful in mitigating their symptoms," says Patti Urso, a faculty member for Walden University's master of science in nursing program. Walden University is an online university headquartered in Minneapolis.

Over-the-counter medications can be used early on to ease the symptoms of colds.

Several prescription medications, like oseltamivir phosphate, widely known under its trade name Tamiflu, are recommended by the CDC to treat the flu this season.

The CDC provides a list of antiviral medications that are recommended as early as possible for people with confirmed or suspected influenza who:

-- Are hospitalized.

-- Have a severe, complicated or progressive illness.

-- Are at higher risk for influenza complications.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If you're feeling poorly or concerned about your health, it's always reasonable to seek medical attention or to call your doctor, Fichtenbaum says. The speed of your symptoms can provide a clue as to whether you might be sicker than usual. "If you become very sick within two days of the start of your symptoms, that's an indication you should seek medical attention," he says.

If you have other health problems that might put you at risk for a more severe infection or are younger than 5 years of age or older than 65, it's a good idea to seek medical attention sooner rather than later.

Here are some early warning signs that should prompt you to seek medical attention:

-- A fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

-- Shortness of breath.

-- Chest pain.

-- Confusion.

-- Severe headache.

How to Avoid a Cold or the Flu

There are several simple and effective strategies to avoid catching a cold or getting the flu, says Ramzi Yacoub, a pharmacist and chief pharmacy officer at SingleCare, a free prescription savings service. He's based in Boca Raton, Florida.

Here are strategies to avoid getting the flu:

-- Get an annual flu shot. Everyone six months old or older should get one.

-- If you're over age 65, ask for a high-dose vaccine.

-- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

-- If soap isn't available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

-- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

-- Don't share food or drinks.

-- Stay away from people who are sick or have flu symptoms.

Yacoub recommends these similar strategies to avoid getting a cold:

-- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

-- If soap isn't available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

-- Stay away from people who are sick or have symptoms.

-- Avoid sharing food or drinks.

[See: Common Childhood Respiratory Diseases]

Who Should Get the Flu Shot?

Because the strain of the flu virus changes a bit every year, an annual vaccine is recommended for everyone, says Dr. Deborah Clements, chair, family and community medicine at Northwestern Medicine Grayslake Outpatient Center.

Children, older adults and people with a chronic illness -- like cancer -- are at risk of more severe complications from the flu and should receive the vaccine, she says. The vaccine is safe during pregnancy and is encouraged to protect both the mom and the baby.

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