Oct. 21, 2008 -- How can I feel better fast? When the familiar symptoms -- sore throat, congestion, runny nose -- start to kick in, recovery is the first thing on your mind.
The first step is figuring out what you have. Cold and flu -- along with bronchitis, pneumonia and the stomach flu -- have similar symptoms, and sometimes similar treatments, but figuring out which you have can help you decide how to proceed.
(Also, if you'd like to know if you have the cold or flu, here's a quick way to check.)
Below we'll explain how to attempt to diagnose your illness, feel better, decide if you need to see a doctor ... if you're unable to avoid these nasty sicknesses in the first place.
The Common Cold
Avoiding It: Cold is spread by a virus that can stay alive on a variety of surfaces. As a result, it's good to keep those germy surfaces clean or identify and avoid them.
But you can also catch the cold from someone who has it, so if you notice someone sneezing or coughing excessively, "Try to avoid them," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
"That's hard to do, and frankly, if they're coughing and sneezing and not being discrete about it, encourage them to practice cough and sneeze etiquette."
That includes, he said, using a tissue, turning your head away from others when you cough or sneeze, or bringing up your elbow and coughing or sneezing into your sleeve.
"That's something the CDC and the rest of us have been trying to promote for the past few years, it's called cough-and-sneeze etiquette," Schaffner said.
So if you happen to catch this virus, try to avoid sharing it with others.
If You Get It: You're probably familiar with these symptoms, because you've almost certainly had the common cold before. A runny nose, a sore throat and congestion are the hallmarks of what may be the most common illness in the Western world.
To Feel Better: Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold, so the best you can do is make yourself feel better while you have it. One possible remedy: hot showers. The steam from the shower can help clear your sinuses and respiratory passages.
"When you're in the shower, gently blow your nose," said Schaffner, as it will help get some of the mucus out of your passages.
"That will help you clear things out," he said.
But as Dr. Erica Brownfield, associate professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, explained, you don't want to shower too long, as it can lead to dehydration.
Remedies for The Common Cold
A steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup can also help you feel better, although doctors don't fully know why.
Also, taking acetaminophen can reduce the fevers that sometimes surface toward the end of the day.
"If you can keep a lid on the fever, sometimes it just makes you feel better," said Schaffner.
As far as vitamin C, Schaffner notes, its value has been mixed in medical studies, so he says to take it if you feel it will help, in which case you can benefit from the placebo effect.
However, he said, if you are taking vitamin C, it becomes even more important to keep yourself hydrated, to avoid kidney stones.
He is more skeptical of other home remedies.
"If you want to take vitamin C, fine, but I wouldn't encourage taking echinacea," he said.
When to See A Doctor: The cold typically lasts for 10 days at most, so you may want to see a doctor if your symptoms last longer or if they start getting worse.
If you keep feeling bad, perhaps you don't have just a cold, but one of the more problematic illnesses listed below.
Avoiding It: While not always 100 percent effective, getting a flu shot will significantly reduce your chances of catching the flu when it comes around. But because you can get the virus even after a vaccination, there are other ways to try to avoid it.
By keeping abreast of the news, you will probably know when the flu reaches your community.
"When influenza is in your community… that's the time that those particularly vulnerable people, even though they've been vaccinated … avoid crowds," said Schaffner.
As examples, he said that concerned patients should have someone else rent movies for them or do their shopping, if possible. Schaffner said he even knows of some people who will stay home from religious services.
If You Get It:If you act quickly, you can cut down the amount of time you spend sick with the flu. You can get antiviral drugs from your doctor to reduce flu time if you take them within 24 to 48 hours of when your symptoms first appear.
If you don't act quickly, you can reduce your symptoms by trying some of the same remedies you would for a cold.
To Feel Better:Like vaccination and avoiding the flu, feeling better when you get the flu may have a lot to do with what you do in advance.
"I would say the best way, up front, is to keep yourself in good shape," said Brownfield.
Eating right, exercising and getting sleep can keep your immune system ready to battle influenza.
Like everything else with the flu, prevention is key.
Flu: How Sick is Too Sick?
When to See A Doctor:While most people recover from influenza, it can be a fatal disease.
Schaffner said that patients who get a sense of sinusitis -- either fullness in the face or facial pain -- should see a doctor.
Difficulty breathing is also a key sign, as it can indicate that you may have bronchitis or pneumonia -- possibly because the flu opened you up to infection.
Avoiding It: Bronchitis can be caused by viruses or bacteria. At least one of those viruses is also the cause of the cold, so following those same tips may help you avoid this nasty cough.
The virus people catch is different from the chronic form, which is caused by inhaling particles over many years or by smoking.
If You Get It: Bronchitis is a deeper infection of your respiratory tract, and so it will be accompanied by heavy coughing, with mucus. Although it is not always the case, the mucus you cough up will often be yellow or green.
Bronchitis will typically last 7-10 days. Many people will recover without needing to see a doctor.
To Feel Better: Because your throat will be sore, as in the case of a cold or flu, many of the same treatments can help you feel better.
Most of the time, bronchitis will be caused by a virus, but in some cases it is caused by a bacteria. If doctors realize this, they will prescribe an antibiotic. However, they will not otherwise, although many patients request it.
The reason for the refusal, as Brownfield explained, is that the antibiotic will not do anything, and patients who needlessly take antibiotics will often not respond to treatment with them in the future.
Additionally, taking those antibiotics may lead to infections that are resistant to those medications.
"Bugs are very smart," Brownfield said.
When to See A Doctor: If you have trouble breathing or feel pain in your chest, or if you have a persistent fever, it may be time to pay your physician a call.
"I would seek medical attention, if at any, any point, people are confused or dehydrated," said Brownfield.
Avoiding It: Pneumonia, like influenza, has a vaccine shot. Unfortunately, like influenza, the vaccine doesn't protect against every strain. Additionally, pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, which a vaccine does not protect against.
Good hygiene, like handwashing, can help you avoid it. Also, if you have flu, make an extra effort to avoid sick people, as you will be more susceptible to pneumonia.
Pneumonia: A Serious Cold, Flu Complication
If You Get It: Pneumonia, like bronchitis, affects the lower respiratory tract. Many people, when they cough up mucus, will see it's yellow or green -- but even if you don't see that color change, you might still have this illness.
To Feel Better: Pneumonia isn't something you should try to recover from on your own.
When to See A Doctor: Only an X-ray can confirm for certain if you have pneumonia or bronchitis. If you find you are having trouble breathing, pick up the phone.
Avoiding It: "Stomach flu is a misnomer -- it's not caused by any flu virus, it's caused by a different type of virus," said Brownfield.
Schaffner explained that stomach flu tends to have an uncertain cause, so aside from general hygiene, it's difficult to pinpoint a way to avoid it.
If You Get It: The virus will often run its course in 24-72 hours, so you should recover much more quickly than you would from influenza.
While you have stomach flu, however, you can expect nausea and, occasionally, vomiting, but more frequently bouts of diarrhea.
To Feel Better: "The most important thing I would once again emphasize is fluid intake," said Schaffner.
Because the disease tends to make you lose fluids, he recommends small sips of fluid, including a carbonated beverage like ginger ale or cola, that will soothe your stomach.
However, Schaffner said, you don't want to drink too quickly, as that may induce nausea or even vomiting. Instead, you want to keep yourself hydrated in a "gentle and persistent fashion."
When to See A Doctor: You should see a doctor if the diarrhea persists, if you feel any kind of abdominal pain or if your stool has blood in it.
If any of that happens, said Schaffner, that's the time to call your doctor, visit him or her, or go to the ER.
Cold & Flu season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.