How can you tell a cold from the flu? Although similarities exist between the two illnesses—and their treatment—they're caused by entirely different viruses. The worst part of a cold might last longer, but the flu generally causes more discomfort. Here, according to Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., is a comparison of common symptoms and the differences between them, depending on whether they are caused by a cold or the flu.
Fever. Prominent with flu, coming on suddenly; rare with a cold.
Headache. Prominent with flu; rare with a cold.
General aches. Prominent and often severe with flu; slight with a cold.
Fatigue. Extreme with flu, lasting 2 to 3 weeks; mild with a cold.
Runny nose. Occasional with the flu; common with a cold.
Sore throat. Occasional with the flu; common with a cold.
Cough. Common and possibly severe with the flu; mild to moderate hacking cough with a cold.
Getting the flu is sort of like taking a multiple-choice quiz. That's because there are three main types of influenza: A, B, and C. Within these types, though, the pesky viruses have unlimited ability to mutate into many forms. Because the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics are powerless against it. But if you get to your doctor within the first 48 hours of symptoms, prescription antiviral drugs, such as zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu), may help you recover quicker. Still, the best defense is avoidance.
If avoidance didn't work, and you've succumbed to the bug, take these steps to help ease the symptoms.
Influenza can be as deadly today as it was in 1918, when the Spanish flu killed more than 20 million people worldwide. So, says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., see a doctor if:
• Your voice becomes hoarse.
• You develop pains in your chest.
• You have difficulty breathing.
• You start bringing up yellow- or green-colored phlegm.
Also be aware that prolonged vomiting can lead to dehydration, which is especially serious in the very young and in elderly people, says Mary Ann Pane, R.N. Abdominal pain may be a sign of another problem, such as appendicitis. If the pain or vomiting doesn't subside after a day, see a doctor.
Eleonore Blaurock-Busch, Ph.D., is associate laboratory director of King James Medical Laboratory and Trace Minerals International, both in Cleveland. She is also the director of Micro Trace Minerals in Hersbruck, Germany, and author of several books.
Suzanne Gaventa is an epidemiologist formerly in the division of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph., was formerly a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Ohio Northern University in Ada. He is an expert on over-the-counter drugs.
Mary Ann Pane, R.N., was formerly affiliated with Community Home Health Services, an agency catering to people who require skilled health care in their homes.
Jay Swedberg, M.D., is a family practitioner at the Family Health Care, P.C., in Casper, Wyoming.
Donald Vickery, M.D., was formerly an assistant clinical professor of family medicine and community medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and co-author of Take Care of Yourself.