Expert Advice on How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu, and How to Treat Each
You feel sick, tired, and your nose is running. Are you coming down with a cold, or is it the flu? Symptoms can be similar, but the flu can lead to health complications such as pneumonia and bacterial infections. Here’s what you should know.
Differences between cold and flu symptoms
The flu and colds are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, but you might not be able to tell which you have right away.
“Unfortunately, the differences are subtle at first,” says Regina Chinsio-Kwong, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician with Mission Heritage Medical Group. “But flu symptoms feel a bit more severe,” she says. “You might have chills, a dry cough, a fever in the low 100s, and feel extra fatigued.”
Muscle aches, headache and fever are common symptoms the flu, but not for colds, and the flu tends to come on fast, whereas colds often start gradually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Flu season runs from October through March.
The best ways to treat both flu and colds? “Rest, regular meals, homemade soup,” says Chinsio-Kwong.
Children should stay home from school, and adults should call in sick from work, not just to rest but to prevent others from getting sick, too. Most people who get the flu recover in less than two weeks; colds can last for a few days.
“Citrus fruits and apples provides vitamins A and C and antioxidants,” Chinsio-Kwong says. “With a cold or flu, a big immune fight is going on inside your body, so you need to arm your troops—eating right helps.”
Soothing teas such as ginger tea, she says, can help the immune system, as can eating garlic and adding sage and thyme to recipes. Taking zinc lozenges may decrease the number of days spent sick, she says.
Fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen, Tylenol or Motrin, can provide needed comfort; label directions should be read and followed exactly.
Doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs for some flu sufferers — especially important for people with asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
It’s these people who need to be especially vigilant about avoiding the flu, as it can cause serious health problems like pneumonia and bacterial infections.
“In close spaces like in your sinuses and middle ear, fluid can linger and harvest bacteria. If you are just not getting better, you could have a bacterial infection,” explains Chinsio-Kwong. In these cases, a visit to the doctor is necessary. Meningitis, a bacterial infection of the brain, is another possible consequence of the flu.
Pressure in the head or pain when moving your eyes can be signs of meningitis, says Chinsio-Kwong. Another is experiencing severe pain when you try to lower your chin to your chest, she adds.
Fast breathing, inability to take fluids, dizziness, confusion and flu-like symptoms that get better then return with fever and a cough that has become worse, are all emergencies, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A baby who shows signs of dehydration — fewer wet diapers, no tears when crying and being unable to eat — should be taken to the emergency room.
How to avoid getting the flu or a cold
Keep your distance from anyone who has the flu, wash your hands regularly, eat foods that are high in nutrition and get regular exercise, says Chinsio-Kwong, naming her recommendations for good health and preventing colds and flu.
She also recommends getting a yearly flu shot — and cautions that some people may experience a sore arm, tiredness or even slight fever after getting the shot.
(This story originally appeared in OC Catholic, January, 2017)
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.