Treating cold or flu symptoms
Frank Benes, MD, is the Emergency department medical director at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa, Ariz.
Question: How do I know if I have the flu or a cold? What can I do to help myself with the symptoms?
Answer: The symptoms of cold and flu are very similar and initially may be difficult to tell apart: muscle aches, cough and chest discomfort are frequently present in both illnesses.
If you have a runny or stuffy nose and a sore throat, you probably have a cold. If your symptoms include a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you feel achy all over, have chills, headache and feel fatigued, you probably have the flu. Overall, flu symptoms are more severe than those of a cold.
Both illnesses are caused by a virus that affects the respiratory system and is spread from person to person by direct contact, or through coughing and sneezing infected droplets into the air. Because the infections are caused by viruses, they will not respond to antibiotic treatment.
Treatment for both illnesses should include:
- Lots of fluids
- Plenty of rest
- Over-the-counter cough medicines
- Decongestants as needed.
If the symptoms last more than a week or are associated with a high fever, cough productive of colored phlegm, or difficulty breathing, patients need to be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible.
Most people who contract a cold or flu will recover within one to two weeks. Occasionally, people with the flu develop life-threatening illnesses such as pneumonia, severe dehydration or worsening of a chronic medical condition and will need to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.
The best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated every year. Vaccinations are typically available in October/November each year, prior to the start of the flu season.