The difference between a cold and the flu

Influenza and colds share many of the same symptoms, but colds are often more mild than influenza or the flu. Both colds and the flu are caused by viruses. Colds and the flu are respiratory illnesses.

Colds usually begin with symptoms of sneezing, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, a sore, scratchy throat, headache, muscle aches and feeling tired or run down and you may or may not run a low a fever.

The flu usually comes on suddenly and symptoms are more severe than with a cold. Many people feel weak and tired, run a higher fever, get the chills, have a harsh, dry cough, runny nose and nasal congestion, have generalized body aches and muscle aches, a more severe headache, a sore throat and even eye pain.

When to call or come and see a healthcare provider

Most of the time, you do not need to come and see a healthcare provider when you have a cold or the flu. If you have any of the following though, a call or visit to your healthcare provider may be appropriate:

• Temperature higher than 102°F

• A cold that lasts for more than 10 days or is getting progressively worse

• If you are immunocompromised

• Wheezing or shortness of breath

• Severe pain in your face or forehead

• Earache or drainage from your ear

• Hoarseness, sore throat, or a cough that will not go away

Treating colds and flu with medication

There are no medicines that can cure a cold or the flu, but there are many that can help relieve the symptoms of colds and the flu. There is also Tamiflu, which is an antiviral medication that can shorten the length of time you have flu symptoms by a day or two or reduce the severity of your flu symptoms, if given early enough in the course of your illness. Antibiotics do not work against viruses and therefore do not help you feel better when you have the flu.

The following ingredients are found in many of the cold and flu medications available at pharmacies and other stores. It is important to read labels carefully and avoid doubling-up or overdosing on these medications. If you have questions, it is best talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

• Analgesics and anti-inflammatories relieve aches and pains and reduce fever. Examples: acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.

• Antitussives tell your brain to stop coughing. Example: dextromethorphan.

• Expectorants help thin mucus so it can be coughed up more easily. Example: guaifenesin. Always stay well hydrated when using guaifenesin.

• Oral decongestants shrink the passages in the nose and reduce congestion. Example: pseudoephedrine.

Other ways to treat your cold and flu symptoms

• Stay home and rest, especially when you have a fever.

• Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.

• Avoid alcohol

• Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids like water, light fruit juices, and broth soups.

• Use throat sprays or lozenges or gargle with warm salt water a few times a day to relieve a sore throat.

• Use salt water (saline) nose drops or humidifiers at night to help moisten the mucus membranes in your nose and loosen mucus.

Lastly, get your flu shot and decrease your risk of getting the flu in the first place. Getting the annual flu shot will help protect those around you who are at higher risk of getting the flu and having more serious complications from the flu, such as people who are immunocompromised, very young children and the elderly. For more information, call 643-0747.

Breanne Paulson, RN, is a Family Nurse Practitioner in Orthopedics, Walk-In and Family Medicine at CHI St Francis Health, Breckenridge, Minnesota.

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