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.
The flu is a very infectious disease that spreads like wildfire, says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph. So don't be a workaholic or a martyr.
|Get some rest|
You shouldn't have much trouble following this advice, since you're probably too sick to do much else.
Liquids are especially important to prevent dehydration if you have a fever. In addition, fluids can provide needed nutrients when you're too sick to eat.
|Reach for pain relief|
Aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can reduce the fever, headache, and body aches that so often accompany the flu. Follow label instructions.
|Think twice about what you take|
Over-the-counter cold medicines may give you some temporary relief of symptoms, says Dr. Gossel. Those with antihistamines, for instance, can dry up a runny nose.
|Do something sweet|
Sucking on hard candy and lozenges keeps your throat moist so it feels better, says Mary Ann Pane, R.N. If you're concerned about the calories these products contain, look for sugar-free brands.
|Humidify the air|
Raising the humidity in your bedroom also helps reduce the discomfort of a cough, sore throat, or dry nasal passages.
|Pamper your nose|
If you've been blowing your nose a lot, it's probably pretty sore. So lubricate your nostrils frequently to decrease irritation, says Pane.
|Take some heat|
One characteristic of the flu is tired, achy muscles. Warm them and ease their pain with a warm bath or heating pad, says Pane.
|Warm your feet|
Soaking your feet in hot water may help if you have a headache or nasal congestion, says Dr. Thrash.
|Breathe fresh air|
Make sure your sickroom has a good supply of fresh air at all times, says Dr. Thrash. But avoid a draft. Prevent chills by using warm, close-fitting bedclothes.
|Get rubbed the right way|
A back rub may help activate your immune system to fight the flu, says Dr. Thrash. And it's very comforting.
|Eat lightly and wisely|
During the worst phase of the flu, you probably won't have an appetite at all.
|Soothe a sore throat with salt water|
A sore or scratchy throat is apt to accompany the flu.
|Get a flu shot|
Every year, scientists develop a vaccine against the most recently circulating strain of the virus.
Because the virus spreads easily, stay away from movies, theaters, shopping centers, and other crowded places during an epidemic, says Thomas Gossel, Ph.D., R.Ph.
|Come in from the cold|
Prolonged exposure to wet and cold weather lowers your resistance and increases your risk of infection.
|Give up bad habits|
Smoking and alcohol can also impair your resistance. Smoking, in particular, injures the respiratory tract and makes you more susceptible to the flu, Dr. Gossel says.
|Kiss at your own risk|
Kissing is an efficient way for the flu to spread, says Dr. Gossel. Just sleeping in the same room with a sick spouse is asking for trouble.
|Keep up your strength|
Don't get tired or run-down. Paint the living room, clean the attic, or build a basement playroom some other time, not during flu season.