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Published on January 09, 2014

Cold or Flu?

Woman pulling tissues from a boxJanuary 9, 2014

Your muscles ache. You have watery eyes and a bad cough. All you can think about is climbing into bed with a heating pad and some medicine. Are you suffering from a cold or the flu?

Sneezing Usually Signals A Cold

Colds are an inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and are caused by a virus. Most people "catch" two to four colds a year. Cold viruses are around all year. However, you are more likely to be exposed when you spend a lot of time indoors and in contact with other people.

Cold viruses enter the body through the mouth and nose. They are spread by hand-to-hand contact with a cold sufferer or by sharing objects such as utensils, towels and telephones.

A cold usually starts with a runny nose and sneezing. Often, you will have a sore throat followed by a non-productive cough.

What sets a cold apart from other viral infections is the lack of a high fever. Your temperature usually stays below 101° F. Symptoms start to subside in about a week.

Fever Often Accompanies Flu

Flu is an infection in the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. Flu is caused by influenza viruses A and B and is spread by sneezing and coughing.

Contrary to popular belief, flu viruses do not cause the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea of "stomach flu" or "intestinal flu." The culprit in these instances is microorganisms such as rotavirus or Norwalk virus, and bacteria such as Salmonella, Shigella and E. Coli.

Flu symptoms (fever, chills, head and muscle aches, and fatigue) seem to come all at once. Your temperature often runs higher than 101° F and subsides in three or four days.

With a cold, you may feel that you can function normally. With the flu, you probably want to go to bed. You also may experience a prolonged period of fatigue after recovering from the initial symptoms. 

If you are healthy, flu is not serious. However, if you are older than 65 or have an underlying disease, flu can lead to life threatening complications, such as pneumonia. Most flu cases can be prevented with an annual vaccination.

Know When To Call Your Doctor

You usually do not have to call your doctor right away if you have signs of a cold or flu. If you are basically healthy, rest and drink plenty of fluids. An over-the-counter pain reliever or decongestant may help you feel better. Call your doctor if:

  • your symptoms get worse;
  • your symptoms last a long time; or
  • after feeling a little better, you show signs of a more serious problem. Some of these signs are feeling sick-to-your-stomach, vomiting, high fever, shaking, chills, chest pain, or coughing with thick, yellow-green mucus
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