You’re coughing, running a fever and ache all over. Is it a bad cold or the flu?
Both are caused by viruses, but not the same ones. They both spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. When the viruses land on surfaces like counters, elevator buttons, stair rails or telephones, another person can get the virus on their hands and then infect themselves when they touch their eyes, nose or mouth.
Colds and flu are both highly contagious and have many symptoms in common, but the flu is a serious illness that may have life-threatening complications. In general, a person with the flu will have fever that’s usually between 102ºF and 104ºF. The fever can last 3-4 days. Flu symptoms come on suddenly and may be severe. You’ll experience muscle aches, a headache, sore throat and feel very tired and weak. Some people feel extremely exhausted. Another symptom is a cough that can be severe. Gastro-intestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are more common in children than adults.
Cold symptoms, which usually are milder than those of the flu, appear within one to three days of being exposed to the cold virus. If you have a cold, then you may have a fever under 102ºF along with a stuffy nose, cough, headache and loss of appetite. You may experience chills and sweats along with some aching muscles.
What if you get the flu or a cold?
If you do get the flu or a cold, the best advice is to get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquid and avoid using alcohol and tobacco. You can take over-the-counter medicines to relieve symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, nasal congestion and cough.
CAUTION: Do NOT give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms, especially a fever. In some cases, this has caused a serious complication known as Reye’s syndrome.
Anti-viral medications may be prescribed for cases of the flu. These medicines may shorten the time you feel ill. Some of these medications only work with certain types of influenza viruses. To be effective, these need to be taken no later than 24 to 48 hours after you first develop symptoms.
Some people are more at risk of developing complications of the flu. These include young children and people older than 50. Other at-risk groups include:
- Residents of nursing homes or chronic care facilities
- People with chronic disorders such as diabetes, heart, lung or kidney disorders
- People with a weakened immune system including those with HIV, leukemia or taking medications following an organ transplant
- Women who are pregnant and in their second or third trimester
- People who work in a healthcare facility
If you fall into one of these groups and develop symptoms of the flu, call your doctor immediately.
If you develop complications including trouble breathing, a very high fever, a severe sore throat, a cough that produces a lot of green or yellow mucus, or you feel faint, call your doctor.
Preventing colds and flu
In the case of viruses like the cold and flu, the best line of defense is prevention. While there isn’t a vaccine for cold viruses, an annual flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months. It’s especially important for those at risk of developing serious complications from the flu to receive the vaccine. These at-risk groups include children under the age of 5, those over the age of 65, pregnant women, American Indians and Alaskan natives and people who have serious medical conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, diabetes, neurological conditions, kidney disease, liver disease and those with a weakened immune system.
Each of us should help prevent the spread of viruses by taking these steps:
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then put the tissue in a trash container. You also can cough or sneeze into your elbow if a tissue isn’t available.
- Keep your hands away from your mouth, nose and eyes to stop the spread of germs.
- Wash your hands often using soap and warm water. You should wash for at least 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice). Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used when soap and water aren’t available.
- Try to avoid contact with those who have symptoms of the cold or flu.
- Stay home when you are sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you remain at home until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours without taking a fever-reducing medication.
If you do become sick with the cold or a flu, watch for signs of worsening symptoms such as symptoms that last longer than 10 days, trouble breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain.
For children these may include:
- Fever higher than 103ºF or a fever that lasts more than three days
- Bluish skin color
- Earache or drainage from the ear
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but come back with a fever or more severe cough
- Vomiting or abdominal pain
- Changes in mental state such as not waking up, irritability or seizures
In adults, look for:
- Fever above 102ºF that lasts for days and is accompanied by fatigue and body aches
- Fainting or feeling faint
- Confusion or disorientation
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Severe sinus pain
- Swollen glands in the neck or jaw
You should contact your doctor or seek emergency medical care if you have any of the symptoms listed above since they may indicate a serious medical condition.