I have a lot of experience with colds, flu and other respiratory infections. I’m both a family medicine doctor and a mom of three young children. So, I have dealt with lots of sniffles and coughs. Additionally, one of my children has asthma so I have to carefully monitor his breathing health.
Differences Between Cold & Flu
Cold symptoms are usually milder in nature than those of the flu—but can make you pretty miserable. Cold symptoms also start more gradually than flu symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of a cold include:
Flu—or influenza—comes on hard and fast. Symptoms include:
- Scratchy throat (often a first “warning” symptom that a cold is coming)
- Cough—mild to severe
- Low grade fever
- Runny nose (usually thin and clear-ish—it can have a color to it)
- Congestion (often leading to headache)
- Fatigue—just feeling run down and tired
- A cold can last a week or two—especially the cough—but with symptom-management/treatment you can usually function (more on treatment in a later post).
- A high fever--usually the first symptom
- Severe body aches (children will often just “lay there” and be weak because they can’t explain that their body hurts)
- A hacking, dry cough—doesn’t produce mucus when coughing.
- Sore throat
- Complete exhaustion
- Shaking, chills
- Sometimes can have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Flu—untreated—will last about a week, and you’re very sick that entire time and can’t function well.
So as you can see, both conditions have some overlap, in that they are respiratory infections, but also are different in severity.
Special Concerns About Flu
The flu—or influenza—is a serious viral infection that can lead to severe complications, especially in certain groups of people including:
- Children under 2
- Adults over 65
- People with chronic illnesses, such as asthma, kidney disease, diabetes, COPD and heart problems
- Pregnant and post-partum women (pregnant women are at the highest risk of anyone of severe complications and death from flu)
In the past few years, I’ve even cared for young, healthy people—with none of these risk factors--who have been hospitalized with severe flu complications. The flu results in death for thousands of Americans each year. If you or a family member exhibit signs and symptoms of flu, you should contact your family doctor to discuss the symptoms and see if you’re a good candidate to receive anti-viral medication. It’s important to call as soon as symptoms are noticed, because the earlier the person receives the medication, the better it works. This is particularly important for those in the high-risk group listed above.
Treatment is All About Symptom Management
Here are some of my best tips for fighting the flu:
- Keep pushing fluids—especially water. Sports drinks or Pedialyte can be good, but I usually recommend diluting them so they’re not so strong, and to cut down on the amount of sugar being taken in.
- Don’t force anyone to eat if they don’t have an appetite. The fluid is more important.
- Over the counter medication for aches and fever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Note: If you use a multi-symptom medication, be careful that you’re not overdosing on acetaminophen, as it can result in liver damage.
- Lots and lots of rest.
A cold isn’t nearly as serious as the flu, but it can still lead to feeling pretty miserable for a week or two.
Here are my suggestions for fighting a cold at home:
Prevention of Colds and Flu
- As with flu, keep the fluids coming! Your body needs to be well-hydrated to fight off infection and feel better.
- Medications that are offered over-the-counter really can be helpful in controlling symptoms such as cough and congestion. For adults, these can be cough syrups, combination medications like DayQuil/NyQuil (again, watch labels to be sure you’re not getting too much of any one ingredient), and medication to loosen congestion.
- A humidifier in a bedroom or other frequently-used space can make breathing more comfortable.
Prevention is sometimes a challenge, but there are a couple of main key steps.
Warning Signs of Complications
- Wash your hands a LOT. Don’t touch your face or anything you’re putting in your mouth. Be careful about contaminating your hands in general. This will help prevent both colds and the flu.
- Get a flu shot! They work, and help prevent the complications that can be so dangerous from influenza. We’ve had so many people take the flu shot this year that my office is out, but there are other locations in the community to get a flu shot yet this year.
- If you do get sick, stay home. Don’t come to work or go shopping and spread it around. If you have to go to the doctor’s office, be sure to wear a mask (usually available just inside the door).
- Do not share utensils or drink after each other. Use disinfectant wipes or sprays frequently on commonly-touched objects like door handles, light switches, remotes, etc.
- Teach even small children to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze. Teach them to put their elbow (rather than their hand) over their mouth.
A general guideline for seeing a doctor is having a fever for five days or more. That definitely is a sign that there may be a more significant issue or a complication setting in.
Here are some specific signs that warrant a call to the doctor:
- Decreased urine output—a sign of dehydration.
- Trouble waking to feed, especially in babies.
- Increased “work” to breathe, or apparent discomfort trying to breathe.
- Extreme lethargy.
- Being inconsolably upset and pitiful.
However, there are a few symptoms that should immediately send you to the emergency department:
How Deaconess Can Help You See A Doctor More Quickly and Conveniently
- Shallow or rapid breathing
- Loss of consciousness or can’t wake the person.
- Severe neck stiffness, particularly with fever or blurred vision.
- Inability to get/stay hydrated.
If you have a Deaconess doctor, you can have a MyChart account. MyChart is your personal health record that you can access via your phone, tablet or home computer. You can use it to schedule appointments, ask questions of your doctor, refill prescriptions and more. Being able to schedule appointments is a favorite feature for MyChart users.
You can also schedule appointments at any Deaconess Urgent Care or Deaconess Clinic EXPRESS location. It’s a lot like making a reservation at a restaurant—you reserve your spot in line without getting there in person first. While patients can continue to be seen on a walk-in basis, it’s nice to be able to reserve a spot and wait at home until it’s your time to be seen.
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