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How to tell the difference between a cold and the flu

Staff Reports • Oct 10, 2018 at 7:14 PM

Colds and the flu often happen at about the same time of year and both have similar, unpleasant symptoms.

While it can be hard to differentiate between the two, it’s important to distinguish the cause of symptoms to determine the best course of treatment.

The common cold

The most common symptoms of a cold are within the respiratory system and include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, cough or chest discomfort. Treatment for symptoms is available through over-the-counter medication designed to target the various symptoms. For example:

• antihistamines can help control a running nose, sneezing and watery eyes.

• decongestants relieve nasal and sinus congestion.

• acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines reduce pain, fever and inflammation.

• expectorants loosen mucus from the respiratory tract to alleviate chest congestion and discomfort.

The best way to treat a cold is to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, use over-the-counter medication and monitor for symptoms that last longer than five to seven days. If symptoms persist, the cold may have developed into an advanced respiratory illness in the form of an ear infection, sinus infection or bronchitis. If this happens, seek treatment from a doctor.

“Distinguishing between a cold and the flu can be difficult because many of the symptoms overlap,” said Dr. John Kane, a family medicine physician. “A fever is one of the most common differentiators, although not everyone with flu will have a fever. Getting to your doctor for testing within a few days of experiencing symptoms can help, as there are medications that can minimize the symptoms of flu when action is taken quickly.”

The flu

While both a cold and the flu generally attack the respiratory system and produce many or all of the same symptoms, flu can affect the entire body. Additional symptoms associated with flu include a fever between 100-104 degrees, headache, body aches, fatigue, exhaustion and nausea.

To confirm a diagnosis of flu, a doctor will swab the nose or throat to test for the virus. Test results are usually available within 30 minutes. For the most accurate results, the test should be performed within four to five days of onset of symptoms. The tests are fairly accurate, and can give a positive diagnosis about 50-70 percent of the time. If the test indicates it’s not the flu, it’s even more accurate at a 90-95 percent rate.

With a mild case, flu can be treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medication to target the symptoms. If a case of flu is more severe, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medications. Anti-nausea medications help with stomach discomfort and vomiting while acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines reduce pain, fever and inflammation. Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu or Relenza shorten the duration of the flu and lessen the serious complications, however, antiviral medications work best when started within 48 hours of getting sick. Medications are particularly important for children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses who are particularly vulnerable to catch and experience complications from the flu.

As with a cold, if symptoms persist longer than three to five days or become increasingly severe, see a doctor. The flu can develop into bronchitis or pneumonia, particularly in patients who are older or have compromised immune systems and may require more intense medical treatment or even hospitalization.

“Flu can be particularly dangerous for infants, pregnant women, older persons or anyone with chronic medical conditions, so they need to be evaluated quickly to be considered for antiviral medication,” said Kane. “Preventive measures such as getting a flu shot for everyone in the household, washing your hands and staying home when you are ill will help to reduce the spread of flu.”

The best way to avoid contracting the flu is to get an annual flu shot. Unfortunately, there is no immunization against the cold, but washing hands frequently, not touching the face with hands, and avoiding contact with people who have a cold can be a strong defense.

The professionals at Tennova Family Medicine-Lebanon are committed to help families stay healthy. The family practice providers, led by Kane and Dr. Gary Gallant, also include nurse practitioner Callie Tuggle, physician’s assistant Julie Malkowski and nurse practitioner LeaBeth Pack and coordinate care for individuals or the entire family, from infants to seniors. They offer same-day appointments and extended hours Mondays through Saturdays from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome. Tennova Family Medicine is at 1616 W. Main St. or visit tennovamedicalgroup.com for more details.

For more information or to find a doctor, call 855-836-6682 or visit tennova.com.

One of the state’s largest health networks, Tennova Healthcare includes 12 hospitals and more than 80 physician clinics. The combined network has more than 2,000 licensed beds, 1,600 physicians on the combined active medical staffs and more than 7,000 employees with nearly 60,000 admissions and 373,000 emergency department visits each year. Physicians and Allied Health Professionals are employees of Tennova Medical Group and Tennova Family Medicine-Lebanon.

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