Cold or flu - know the difference

Health

At some point this winter, you’ll likely find yourself under the weather with a cough, runny nose, or fever. But how do you know if your symptoms are caused by the flu or just the common cold? Learn the telltale signs of each so you can effectively treat your symptoms and feel better faster.

It’s a Cold

"Colds for the most part involve the body from the neck up, affecting the nose and throat," says William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and the medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). When you catch a cold, which can be caused by more than 100 different types of viruses, you may experience a sore throat with a mild cough, a runny or stuffy nose, and red or watery eyes. A low-grade fever and mild fatigue are other common symptoms. If the cold reaches your sinuses, things get more unpleasant and you can get the dreaded post-nasal drip.

How to get relief: Schaffner recommends getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. A warm shower also helps soothe tender nostrils. "This will keep your mucous membranes moist so they don’t get crusted and uncomfortable," says Schaffner. And if you are up to it, take a stroll around the block or a light jog on the treadmill. Research shows that mild exercise can temporarily relieve nasal congestion by opening your nasal passages.

It’s the Flu

"Influenza is principally an infection of the mucous membranes in the back of your throat and bronchial tubes,” says Schaffner. “The bronchial tubes get inflamed so an irritating dry cough is a prominent symptom." As with a cold, you may get a sore throat and nasal stuffiness, but that’s where the similarities end. The flu hits you faster and harder—with symptoms that are widespread over the body. "Once the flu takes a hold of you, you’ll feel very weak and want to go to bed immediately," says Dr. Schaffner. A high fever may follow, along with fatigue, chills, muscle aches and pains, as well as a loss of appetite. A few people may get diarrhea or vomiting.

How to get relief: When caught early, the flu can be treated with antiviral medications (Tamiflu or Relenza), so it’s important to see your doctor right away, especially if you are older than age 65 or have an underlying health condition. Your best defense is to get a flu shot while you are still healthy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for everyone ages 6 months and older.

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