The Doctors column: How to tell if you’ve got the flu or a cold
March 18, 2013
You’re achy, your nose is runny, and your throat feels a little scratchy – you know something is coming on, but you’re not sure what. Is it a run-of-the-mill winter cold or more-serious flu? Three ways to tell the difference:
Flu comes with a fever. This may be your first (and perhaps more obvious) clue: The common cold rarely causes body temperature to rise. A high fever, however, is characteristic of the flu – it usually runs between 100 degrees and 102 degrees (or higher, especially in kids) and lasts three to four days. Headaches also more commonly occur with the flu, not as much with a cold. If your first signs are a runny nose, scratchy throat and sneezing, that’s most likely a cold. Those symptoms tend to develop more slowly, while the flu usually comes on suddenly.
Flu makes you miserable. Is having a cold annoying? Yes. Could you classify it as a nuisance? Sure. But with the flu, you’ll feel so much worse. Aside from an initial high fever, the aches and pains are more severe. Coughing is continual (and lasts longer), and weakness and exhaustion can be intense. Early reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict a severe flu season this year. While a cold may lead to sinus congestion in adults or an ear infection in kids, the flu could develop into bronchitis, pneumonia or even a brain infection for high-risk people (such as children under 2 and adults over 65).
Meds won’t help a cold. Get rest and plenty of fluids – that’s the advice you’ll hear for both conditions. For some flu cases, doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs to ease symptoms and prevent complications. These don’t work on colds and should not be confused with antibiotics. A survey showed about one in three Americans believe antibiotics treat both cold and flu. It’s not true: Antibiotics help fight bacterial infections; cold and flu are caused by viruses. There’s no cure for a cold, but if you want to try over-the-counter meds, talk to your doctor first – many meds have side effects, and some are dangerous for children.
The Doctors is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork, and plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon. Check http://www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.