Cold and Flu

A Guide to Beating the Cold and Flu

Though they share many symptoms in common, a cold is very different from the flu. The common cold is a collection of symptoms caused by a variety of different viruses, most commonly the rhinovirus. The flu, otherwise known as influenza, is caused by the flu viruses. Though both are considered respiratory illness, colds are usually much milder, while flus tend to be much more severe, occur with sudden onset of fever, and can result in more serious health complications such as pneumonia.

The symptoms that colds and flus have in common are:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus congestion
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

Some distinct symptoms for colds and flus are:

Cold Flu
Usually begins with a sore throat that lasts for 1 to 2 days. Symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly.
Nasal symptoms, runny nose, congestion, and cough usually start by the 4th or 5th day. Nasal secretion usually starts out watery and later becomes thicker and darker. Sore throat, headache, fever, muscle aches, and soreness are common. Swine flu is also associated with vomiting and diarrhea.
Slight fever is possible, but not common in adults. Pneumonia is a complication of the flu, especially in people who are very young, elderly, or have problems with their lungs or heart. See a doctor if you experience shortness of breath.
Symptoms usually last for about a week, but can last longer. Most flu symptoms gradually improve over 2 to 5 days, but can last for a week or more.

How can I prevent colds and flus?

The best protection against colds and flus is frequent hand washing—about 80 percent of contagious diseases are transmitted through touch. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water. The CDC also recommends taking these three actions to prevent the flu:

  • Get a flu shot or nasal vaccine. The flu shot is at least 50 percent protective against the flu. If you do get the flu despite being vaccinated, the illness tends to be milder (most people hospitalized with severe complications never received vaccinations). The vaccine is recommended for everyone six months or older and is an important step in protecting against the flu virus. However, if you already feel sick, it’s best to wait until you feel better before getting the vaccine to prevent future infections.
  • Avoid contact with people who are infected with the flu, and stay home if you start to experience flu-like symptoms. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and be sure to wash your hands with soap and water.
  • If your doctor has prescribed antiviral drugs, take them within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms (though the medications can still be effective after 48 hours, especially if you are very sick or have other health problems).

How can I ease my cold and flu symptoms?

Over-the-Counter Treatment

There are a variety of over-the-counter medications[3] to ease cold and flu symptoms, but it’s important to be aware of potential risks and side effects. If you have nasal or sinus congestion, a decongestant can be helpful, though it may keep you awake or make you jittery. Nasal decongestants can quickly open breathing passages, but should not be used for more than three days. Otherwise, congestion can actually become worse. Saline spray works more slowly, but doesn’t carry the risk of worsening congestion. Decongestants also increase blood pressure and heart rate, so talk to your doctor if you have high blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medication.

Antihistamines may help a runny nose or watery eyes, though they can make mucus secretions thicker and cause drowsiness. Talk to your doctor if you have asthma or are taking other medications that may be affected by antihistamines.

Cough syrups can also cause side effects, and are not recommended for children under age two.

If you take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain relief, don’t exceed the maximum recommended dose of 3,000 mg per day.

Natural Remedies

You can also try these natural remedies to care for your cold and flu symptoms:

cold tips
  • Drink plenty of fluid, including water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon water.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and cigarette smoke.
  • Get as much rest as possible and stay home from work or school if possible.
  • A humidifier or vaporizer can help moisten the air at home and help relieve congestion and coughing.
  • Saline nasal drops can help relieve nasal congestion.
  • Try a soothing sore throat tea.
  • Chicken soup is a natural anti-inflammatory and it temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus through the nose, which can help relieve congestion.

Call a doctor if

It’s important to make an appointment with your provider if you experience any the following:

  • Severe coughing fits
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain in an unusual location (such as your eye, ear, or tooth)
  • High fever above 103 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Trouble drinking fluids
  • Any symptoms that last longer that 2 weeks
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Andrew Diamond, MD PhD at One Medical

Andrew focuses on preventive medicine, chronic disease management and patient empowerment through education and use of health information technology. An internist, he practices at One Medical with a team of like-minded primary care providers.

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