Expert Advice on How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu,
and How to Treat Each
You feel sick, tired, and your nose is running. Are you coming down with
a cold, or is it the flu? Symptoms can be similar, but the flu can lead
to health complications such as pneumonia and bacterial infections. Here’s
what you should know.
Differences between cold and flu symptoms
The flu and colds are respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, but you
might not be able to tell which you have right away.
“Unfortunately, the differences are subtle at first,” says
Regina Chinsio-Kwong, DO, medical director of
St. Joseph Hoag Health Wellness Corners, and a board-certified family medicine physician with
Mission Heritage Medical Group. “But flu symptoms feel a bit more severe,” she says. “You
might have chills, a dry cough, a fever in the low 100s, and feel extra
Muscle aches, headache and fever are common symptoms the flu, but not for
colds, and the flu tends to come on fast, whereas colds often start gradually,
according to the Centers for Disease Control. Flu season runs from October
The best ways to treat both flu and colds? “Rest, regular meals,
homemade soup,” says Chinsio-Kwong.
Children should stay home from school, and adults should call in sick from
work, not just to rest but to prevent others from getting sick, too. Most
people who get the flu recover in less than two weeks; colds can last
for a few days.
“Citrus fruits and apples provides vitamins A and C and antioxidants,”
Chinsio-Kwong says. “With a cold or flu, a big immune fight is going
on inside your body, so you need to arm your troops—eating right
Soothing teas such as ginger tea, she says, can help the immune system,
as can eating garlic and adding sage and thyme to recipes. Taking zinc
lozenges may decrease the number of days spent sick, she says.
Fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen, Tylenol or Motrin, can
provide needed comfort; label directions should be read and followed exactly.
Doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs for some flu sufferers — especially
important for people with asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
It’s these people who need to be especially vigilant about avoiding
the flu, as it can cause serious health problems like pneumonia and bacterial
“In close spaces like in your sinuses and middle ear, fluid can linger
and harvest bacteria. If you are just not getting better, you could have
a bacterial infection,” explains Chinsio-Kwong. In these cases,
a visit to the doctor is necessary. Meningitis, a bacterial infection
of the brain, is another possible consequence of the flu.
Pressure in the head or pain when moving your eyes can be signs of meningitis,
says Chinsio-Kwong. Another is experiencing severe pain when you try to
lower your chin to your chest, she adds.
Fast breathing, inability to take fluids, dizziness, confusion and flu-like
symptoms that get better then return with fever and a cough that has become
worse, are all emergencies, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A baby who shows signs of dehydration — fewer wet diapers, no tears
when crying and being unable to eat — should be taken to the emergency room.
How to avoid getting the flu or a cold
Keep your distance from anyone who has the flu, wash your hands regularly,
eat foods that are high in nutrition and get regular exercise, says Chinsio-Kwong,
naming her recommendations for good health and preventing colds and flu.
She also recommends getting a yearly flu shot — and cautions that
some people may experience a sore arm, tiredness or even slight fever
after getting the shot.
(This story originally appeared in OC Catholic, January, 2017)
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.