You’re coughing, running a fever and ache all over. Is it a bad cold or the flu?
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.
Symptoms of Colds and Flu
- Fever: Rare in adults and older children. Can be as high as 102ºF in infants and small children.
- Headache: Rare
- Muscle Aches: Mild
- Tiredness & Weakness: Mild
- Extreme Exhaustion: Never
- Runny Nose: Often
- Sneezing: Often
- Sore Throat: Often
- Cough: Mild hacking cough
- Fever: Usually 102ºF, but can go to 104ºF. Fever lasts 3-4 days.
- Headache: Sudden onset and can be severe.
- Muscle Aches: Usual, often severe.
- Tiredness & Weakness: Often extreme. Can last 2 or more weeks.
- Extreme Exhaustion: Sudden onset, can be severe.
- Runny Nose: Sometimes
- Sneezing: Sometimes
- Sore Throat: Sometimes
- Cough: Usual, can become severe.
The flu may be far more dangerous than a cold and may lead to pneumonia. Both are caused by viruses, but not the same ones.
Cold symptoms appear within one to three days of being exposed to the cold virus. Flu symptoms come on abruptly and may be quite severe including high fever, cough, headache, and muscle and body aches. Gastro-intestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are more common in children than adults.
How viruses are spread
Influenza viruses spread through the air when a person with the flu coughs, sneezes or speaks. Other people then inhale the viruses. Once the virus enters the nose, throat or lungs, they start to multiply and symptoms of the flu appear. You also may be exposed to flu viruses by touching a surface such as a door handle or telephone and then touching your mouth or nose.
You may be contagious and able to spread the flu virus even before you start showing symptoms. Adults can transmit the flu virus one day before showing symptoms and up to seven days after getting sick. Children may be contagious for a longer period of time.
Preventing the flu
The best prevention is to get a flu shot in the fall. If you didn’t get your flu shot this year, there are still steps you can take.
- Avoid coming in contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home if you are sick, if possible.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Don’t use your hands since you will just transmit the virus to what you touch. If necessary, use your forearm or sleeve when coughing and sneezing.
- Wash your hands. Frequent hand washing using soap and water remains one of the best ways to keep from picking up viruses and from spreading them to others.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands since this can spread viruses you’ve picked up from surfaces around you.
What if you get the flu?
If you do get the flu, 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 of the flu.
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.
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.
There are some medications that may help shorten the flu’s duration and intensity. These include neuramidase, rimantadine and amantadine. 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.