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Tips to tell difference between flu and colds

Robert Thomas, former Information Specialist, Cooperative Media Group, University of Missouri Extension

Boy blowing his noseThe flu season has many people worried about coming down with illness. However, it is a good idea to run through a checklist of symptoms to be sure that what’s bugging you is the flu and not a common cold or bacterial pneumonia.

“The common cold, the flu and pneumonia can have similar symptoms. The viruses and bacteria that cause these illnesses are around all year. People are more likely to be exposed in winter because they spend more time inside and in closer contact with each other,” said Gail Carlson, former University of Missouri state health education specialist.

It is sometimes difficult to know when a minor illness has become something more serious and requires a visit to your health care provider.

A cold almost always starts with a scratchy throat and stuffy nose. Within a few hours other symptoms appear — sneezing, a mild sore throat, sometimes a minor headache and coughing.

Runny noses are a common feature of colds. On the other hand, fevers are not very common in adults with colds. Fever may occur in small children, but it usually doesn’t rise above 103° F, Carlson said.

When someone has the flu, symptoms start suddenly and include headache, sore throat, dry cough, runny nose, muscle aches, tiredness, weakness and high fever (102-104° F). Children may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is not common in adults. Adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after getting sick.

“Antibiotics won’t help when you have a cold or flu. When you have a cold, try home treatments: get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, use a humidifier to add moisture to the home and if you choose, take an over-the-counter medication to relieve the symptoms,” she said.

If the flu strikes, home treatment is also a good approach for healthy adults. A few years ago this was the only option. Today, there are antiviral medications available, but they must be taken within two days of the on-set of the symptoms to be effective. Antiviral medications don’t “cure” the flu; they make the symptoms less severe.

The antiviral medications are used most often in institutional settings like nursing homes, but anyone who is at high risk of serious complications may benefit from taking them. Your health care provider can help you decide whether you should take antiviral drugs, Carlson said.

The flu can make you feel miserable, but serious complications are not common in healthy adults. One possible complication is pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. There are two types of pneumonia — viral and bacterial. Bacterial pneumonia is the most serious and can be deadly.

Pneumonia symptoms include a high fever and a cough that produces thick, rust-colored, greenish or yellowish mucus. Chills and stabbing chest pain when breathing are additional symptoms. Typically, a person who has the flu starts to feel better then becomes very ill. Those most vulnerable to catching pneumonia are children under the age of four, older adults, and persons with conditions that compromise their immune system, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer and AIDS.

Prevention is still the best policy, Carlson said. Even when there is a shortage of flu vaccine given by injection, the nasal spray flu vaccine is an option for some people. The nasal spray uses weakened living influenza cells and is recommended for use by healthy people ages 5 through 49. This is not a solution for everyone. Your health provider can help you determine if this is a good option for you.

If you can’t get a flu shot, getting a pneumonia shot can protect you against this potential serious complication of the flu. It's a one-time shot for anyone 65 or older. Younger people with heart and lung diseases, diabetes or weak immune systems need it too, Carlson said.

While there are no guarantees, there are some things you can do to reduce your chances of becoming ill.

  • Eat right, exercise and learn to manage stress. If you are generally in good health, your immune system is better able to fight off illnesses.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. And stay home when you are sick. Keeping your distance from others will protect them from getting sick too, Carlson said.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.

These practices can at least reduce the spread of colds and the flu and reduce your risk of developing more serious complications like pneumonia.

These tips provide general information, Carlson said. “Follow the advice of your health care provider; his or her advice is individualized to your situation.”


Source: Gail Carlson


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Last Updated 11/17/2014