A cold and the flu (also called influenza) are alike in many ways. But the flu can sometimes lead to more serious problems, such as pneumonia. Here's how to distinguish between them, along with tips on prevention and treatment.
The symptoms of a cold develop slowly and can include:
* Fever up to 102 degrees
* Runny or stuffy nose (often with green or yellow-colored discharge)
* Sore throat
* Fatigue, muscle aches
* Watery eyes
Flu symptoms usually appear suddenly and can include:
* Fever over 102 degrees
* Stuffy nose
* Chills and sweats
* Fatigue and muscle aches, especially in your back, arms and legs
* Loss of appetite
Although both are caused by viruses, there are more than 200 different varieties that can cause colds. Not as many viruses cause the flu.
There's no cure for the common cold. All you can do to feel better is treat your symptoms while your body fights off the virus. Some ways to alleviate symptoms of both the cold and the flu:
- Get plenty of rest, especially while you have a fever.
- Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke, which can aggravate symptoms.
- Drink lots of fluids to help loosen mucus and prevent dehydration.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to dry air.
- Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day to relieve a sore throat. Throat sprays or lozenges may also help relieve pain.
- Avoid alcohol.
No over-the-counter medicine can cure a cold or the flu. But they can help relieve symptoms. Always check with your doctor before giving any medicine to children. What to look for:
- Analgesics relieve aches and pains and reduce fever. Examples include acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen. Warning: Children and teenagers shouldn't be given aspirin or other salicylates because these can cause a Reye's Syndrome, a disease with sometimes fatal consequences. If you aren't sure if a product has salicylates, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
- Antitussives (cough suppressants) tell your brain to stop coughing, but don't take one if you're coughing up mucus.
- Expectorants loosen mucus so it can be coughed up more easily.
- Decongestants shrink nasal passages, reducing congestion.
- Antihistamines stop runny nose and sneezing by blocking the compound histamine
If you have a severe case of the flu, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine, which can help shorten disease duration.
When to call the doctor
- A fever above 103 degrees or one that lasts for more than 3 days
- Symptoms that persist for more than 10 days
- Trouble breathing, fast breathing or wheezing
- Bluish skin color
- Earache or drainage from the ear
- Changes in mental state (such as not waking up, irritability or seizures)
- Flu-like symptoms that improve, but return with a fever and a worse cough
- A high (above 102 degrees), prolonged fever
- Symptoms that last for more than 10 days or worsen
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain or pressure
- Fainting or feeling faint
- Confusion or disorientation
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Severe pain in face or forehead
- Hoarseness, sore throat or a cough that persists more than 10 days
- Wash your hands often. You can pick up cold germs easily, even when shaking someone's hand or touching doorknobs or handrails.
- Avoid people with colds when possible.
- Sneeze or cough into a tissue and then throw the tissue away.
- Clean surfaces you touch with a germ-killing disinfectant.
- Don't touch your nose, eyes, or mouth. Germs can enter your body easily by these paths.
Eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep also play a part in preventing colds and the flu because they help boost your immune system.
A flu vaccine can greatly lower your chance of getting the flu. The best time to get the vaccine is from the middle of October to the middle of November when it first becomes available. The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get the influenza vaccine. It's best to get the vaccine when it first becomes available (in October or November), but you can also get it any time throughout the flu season (into December, January and beyond). The vaccine, available by shot or nasal spray, works by exposing your immune system to the flu virus. Your body reacts by building up antibodies to the virus to protect you from getting the flu. The flu shot contains dead viruses. The nasal-spray vaccine contains live but weakened viruses. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot, but you may feel sore or weak or have a fever for a few days.
Some people who get the vaccine still get the flu, but usually get a milder case. The vaccine is especially recommended for:
- people 65 or older.
- nursing home patients.
- those over 6 months old with health problems, such as. asthma, or with long-term diseases, such as HIV or heart disease.
- children or teen-agers who must often take aspirin.
- people who are often around older people or those with health problems.
Talk to your doctor before you get the shot if you:
- have certain allergies, especially to eggs.
- have an illness, such as pneumonia.
- have a high fever.
- are pregnant.
If you are one of those who should not get the flu shot, ask your doctor about prescription medicine to help prevent flu. And if you get the flu, taking this medicine within the first 48 hours can make your illness less serious. But don't take antibiotics; these won't work against cold and flu germs.