Is It a Cold? Or Is It the Flu? And What Do You Do?
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Is It a Cold? Or Is It the Flu? And What Do You Do?

Consider these statistics:

  • According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35-50 million Americans are infected with influenza (the flu) during flu season, which typically lasts from November to March.
  • According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Americans suffer 1 billion colds annually.

With so many people affected by these two infections, it may seem impossible to avoid catching one, or both. But, you can greatly reduce your chances. Arm yourself with the following information about the common cold and the flu—and don't be the next victim.

Is It A Cold or the Flu?

The symptoms for a cold and the flu are somewhat similar. This easy-to-read chart can help you determine which infection you may have.

FeverRarely above 100.5°F-101°F, and then only for a day or soCharacteristic, high (102°F-104°F); last 3-4 days
HeadacheGenerally mildProminent
General aches, painsSlightUsual; often severe
Fatigue, weaknessQuite mildCan last up to 2-3 weeks
Extreme exhaustionNeverEarly and prominent
Stuffy noseCommonSometimes
Sore throatCommonSometimes
Chest discomfort, coughMild to moderate, hacking coughCommon; can become severe

Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Facts About the Common Cold

A cold is a minor infection of the throat and nose. Although colds are usually mild, they are the leading cause of doctor visits and job and school absenteeism. More than 200 different viruses are known to cause symptoms of a cold—although rhinoviruses and coronaviruses cause the majority of colds. Cold symptoms usually last about 1-2 weeks. Rarely, a cold can turn into a severe lower respiratory infection in young children.

Preventing a Cold

Colds are extremely contagious. A cold is transmitted by droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus. These droplets become airborne when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks. You contaminate yourself by inhaling these droplets or touching a surface that the viruses have landed on and then touching your eyes or nose. To prevent getting a cold, take these simple precautions:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Do not touch your nose, eyes, or mouth. This will help you avoid infecting yourself with germs you may have picked up.

Avoid spreading your cold to others by:

  • Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue handy then put your arm up over your face and sneeze into your elbow. (Sneezing onto your hands increases your likelihood of spreading the cold to others!)
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Limit close contact with others when you are sick.

Treating a Cold

Antibiotics will not cure a cold. In fact, you cannot cure a cold. But, certain things can help you reduce your discomfort. These include:

  • Take certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications. For example, acetaminophen helps to relieve aches and fever, while decongestants and antihistamines combat congestion. Use caution, though, when giving these medications to children.
    • In a Public Health Advisory, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that OTC cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants or children less than two years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including death, convulsions, rapid heart rates, and decreased levels of consciousness. OTC cough and cold products include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and antitussives (cough suppressants). The FDA is still reviewing data concerning the safety of these products in children aged 2-11 years. There have been serious side effects reported in this age group as well.*
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water and juice a day. This will help keep you hydrated.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. These promote dehydration.
  • Avoid smoke. It irritates an already sore throat and intensifies a cough.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a humidifier—an electric device that puts moisture into the air.

Facts About the Flu

The flu is in an infection of the upper respiratory tract. It is caused by the influenza virus and is spread through the air. The flu is highly contagious. When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, tiny droplets full of flu particles are expelled. Because these droplets are small, they are suspended in the air long enough for another person to inhale them.

The flu and its symptoms are more severe than those of the common cold. The flu can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia. In addition, it can be life-threatening for the elderly, people with lung disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Preventing the Flu

A flu shotcan lower your chance of getting the flu. The best time to get the shot is from early October to the middle of November, but because flu often arrives late in the winter, shots can usually be given into February or March and still offer full benefit.

Anyone can benefit from flu shots, but public health experts recommend that the following persons have high priority for protection from influenza:

  • Those over 65 or between 6 months and 5 years old
  • Women who might become or be pregnant during flu season
  • Healthcare workers
  • Persons with a variety of chronic disorders including diabetes , cancer , heart disease, and most lung problems
  • Caretakers of young children, the elderly, or persons with chronic disorders listed above

Treating the Flu

Most importantly, when you have the flu, you need rest. And until your symptoms are gone, it is a good idea to not go back to your full activity level. You also need plenty of liquids.

There are four antiviral medications available to treat the flu:

  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
  • Zanamivir (Relenza)
  • Amantadine (Symmetrel)
  • Rimantadine (Flumadine)

Antivirals are only effective when taken within 48 hours after flu symptoms appear, and some forms of the virus have developed resistance to one or more of these medications. In the absence of such resistance, these drugs can reduce the duration of your symptoms by a day or two and lessen their overall severity. You need to contact your doctor as soon as possible after flu symptoms appear to get the greatest benefit from these medications. Antibiotics will not work against the flu virus.

To relieve the aches and fever associated with the flu, you can try acetaminophen, found in over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol. For the congestion, stuffy nose, and cough, try a combination of decongestant and antihistamine.

When to Call the Doctor

You usually do not need to call a doctor if you have signs of the flu or a cold. However, you should contact your doctor if you experience any of the following difficulties:

  • Your symptoms get worse.
  • Your symptoms last a long time.
  • After you feel better, you develop signs of a more serious problem. These include:
    • Sick-to-your-stomach feeling
    • Vomiting
    • High fever
    • Shaking chills
    • Chest pain
    • Coughing with a thick, yellow-green mucus

Because the four flu medications listed above may be able to reduce the symptoms of influenza and prevent hospitalization and death among high-risk persons (for example, those above age 65, young children, and persons with chronic illnesses requiring frequent medical attention), you and your doctor may choose to develop a “flu” plan if you fall into a high-risk category. By following such a plan you may be able to start taking an anti-flu medication quickly in the (unlikely) event your yearly flu vaccine doesn’t protect you against the symptoms of influenza.


American Lung Association

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

US Food and Drug Administration


Canadian Family Physician

Health Canada


*1/30/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance: Public health advisory: Nonprescription cough and cold medicine use in children—FDA recommends that over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold products not be used for infants and children under 2 years of age. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/cder/drug/advisory/cough_cold_2008.htm. Accessed January 30, 3008.

Last reviewed July 2008 by Jill Landis, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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