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Cold vs. flu: how to read and treat your symptoms

fluCough, congestion, aches, chills. Cold and flu season is upon us. But which do you have? And why does it matter?

“Both the common cold and influenza (the flu) are respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different viruses. In general, flu symptoms are more severe than the common cold and can lead to complications such as pneumonia or bacterial infections,” says Richard Menet, MD, a physician with Affinity Occupational Health.

Get the FACTS
While many cold symptoms can mimic the flu, there are five FACTS that generally point to influenza:

  • Fever
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Tiredness
  • Sudden symptoms

Fever, headache, severe body aches and chills are red flags for the flu. Sneezing, runny or stuffy nose and sore throat are more likely tied to a common cold. Flu symptoms often appear suddenly, within three to six hours, whereas cold symptoms might appear more gradually. Both illnesses may make you feel tired, but with the flu this symptom is more extreme. “Flu sufferers may not be able to function off the couch. They’re likely to sleep all day,” Dr. Menet says.

Stop Flu in Its Tracks
If you suspect you have the flu, it’s a good idea to see your doctor right away so he can test for the influenza virus and prescribe an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu. If taken within 12 to 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, antivirals can stop the flu from spreading throughout your body and shorten the duration of your misery. “Antivirals can also reduce the incidence of influenza-related lower respiratory tract complications such as pneumonia,” says Dr. Menet.

“Just” a Cold
Cold symptoms can drag you down, but over-the-counter medications can help. “Just be sure not to take medication for symptoms you don’t have,” advises Dr. Menet. “Cold medicines are formulated for every possible combination of symptoms, so you should be able to find one tailored to what ails you.”

Unlike antivirals, however, cold meds don’t attack the virus; they just relieve symptoms. The only cure for the common cold is time.

Keep Yourself and Others Healthy
Remember, prevention is the best medicine. Ward off winter bugs by washing your hands often, and get a flu shot. If you are struck by a nasty virus, do your co-workers a favor and take a sick day. Some things are best kept to yourself.


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