Cold or Flu: How to Tell

Dec 5, 2012 11:44am

Flu season is officially here, but influenza isn’t the only winter virus you have to worry about.

Click here to see 12 flu myths debunked.

The common cold, caused by rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and coronaviruses, can wreak havoc on your sinuses. You might think you have the flu, but there are some key differences.

“With influenza you might also feel very poorly, with aches and pains in your muscles and joints,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “There’s often a cough, too, which is much more prolonged and pronounced.”

Click here for tips on how to prevent a cold.

There’s no doubt a cold can make you feel miserable, according to Schaffner. “But it’s nothing like a serious case of influenza. That will make you just want to go to bed.”

The best way to prevent the flu is an annual flu shot. But if you’re already having symptoms, knowing the source of your misery — cold or flu — can help you choose the right remedy. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases provides this table as guidance:

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Rarely Usually
Headache Rarely Usually
General aches, pains Slight Usually
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usually
Exhaustion Never Usually
Stuffy nose Usually Sometimes
Sneezing Usually Sometimes
Sore throat Usually Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough Sometimes a hacking cough Usually, can be severe

If you have a cold, you might find relief in over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers. If you have the flu, you might need antiviral medication like Tamiflu, which can “shorten the duration of influenza and turn a serious illness into a milder one,” Schaffner said.

Drink plenty of fluids and take it easy, Schaffner added. And don’t take antibiotics, which are useless against the viruses that cause colds and the flu.

“And the more we use them, the more resistant the bacteria are going to be, so next time we really need antibiotics, they might not work,” said Schaffner.

Click here to read about winter allergy symptoms.

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