Cold? The Flu? Here's What to Do
And now that
most of us are reassured that the slightest tickle in the back
of the throat probably isn't anthrax, we can get back to the less-alarming
task of figuring out if it's a cold or the flu. And what can be
done about it.
confusion between the common cold and influenza is due to the
fact that the symptoms for both are so similar -- runny nose,
sore throat, fever and body aches.
For the record,
colds are caused by viruses, and there are often at least 200
of them circulating during cold and flu season. But, there's typically
only one influenza virus that circulates each year, health experts
The best ways
to tell you're dealing with a cold, not the flu, are severity
and duration -- colds typically last from three to seven days
and generally aren't very serious.
Kwok, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan's
Department of Internal Medicine, says the best treatment for the
common cold comes right from your grandmother's book of sound
advice: Get plenty of rest, drink hot liquids, eat chicken soup,
gargle with warm salt water and take over-the-counter cold remedies.
rest really does make sense, because we know that stress and a
lot of physical activity can depress your immune system,"
he says. "So if you do have an infection, it makes sense
that resting and drinking lots of fluids would help your system
get better and prevent coming down with an additional problem."
that some studies have shown that taking zinc lozenges can reduce
cold symptoms from six days to three days. While the evidence
isn't strong, he says it can't hurt to have a stash of zinc lozenges
handy, just to give a try.
If you feel
like you've got a whopper of a cold, however, with more serious
and longer lasting symptoms than normal, you're probably dealing
with the flu.
Cases of flu
can last up to about 12 days. And although antibiotics are useless
against a cold, they can be effective in treating the flu virus,
Kwok says. But they're only really effective if taken within 48
hours of the first symptoms and are usually prescribed for high-risk
the countless over-the-counter drugs to combat colds and the flu,
but even the most potent varieties are likely to offer little
more than temporary relief, says Dr. Larry Fields, a family physician
and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of
over-the-counter medications act to control symptoms so you may
feel better, but the course of illness is not shortened by the
drugs," Fields says.
So if the
treatment is typically the same for the cold and flu, why is it
important to know whether you've got one or the other?
flu has much greater potential to lead to pneumonia in certain
high-risk people, Kwok says. Those people include the elderly,
those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or chronic
bronchitis, and those with auto-immune deficiencies.
should be suspected if flu symptoms suddenly worsen, if a fever
suddenly spikes higher, or someone experiences shortness of breath.
provider should be called immediately if such symptoms develop.
very rare for someone to die from a cold, but the flu and complications
from the flu are estimated to cause about 20,000 deaths per year
in the United States. So that's why there's more concern about
the flu," says Kwok.
The best way
to protect against the flu and pneumonia is to get a flu shot.
Although anyone can get one, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for people over 50, those
in the high-risk groups, women who will be at least three months
pregnant during flu season and those with compromised auto-immune
who is in a high-risk group, regardless of their age, should consider
having the vaccine. And anyone who just doesn't want to get the
flu should also think about the flu vaccine," says Kwok.
cut your risk of colds and flu, there's always good old hand washing,
washing your hands is highly important whether you have a cold
or are trying to avoid getting one," he says. "If you're
the infected person, you also need to make sure to cover your
nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze so that you're not spreading
it that way."
The CDC says
an estimated 62 million people develop colds in the United States
annually, and as many as 95 million get the flu.
for flu outbreaks in the United States are November through April.
During the past 19 flu seasons, the month of February has had
the heaviest flu activity, followed by January, December and March.
Do: To learn more about the flu, visit the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more information
on pneumonia, visit the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.