Is It a Cold Or a Flu? - NBC4 Washington

Is It a Cold Or a Flu?

How to tell which one's which



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    You wake up Monday morning and you feel it, instantaneously.  No, not the gut-wrenching dread of a five day succession of nine-to-fivers.  But the raspy-throat-type-of-sensation, combined with the feeling that someone punched you, over and over, in your face during your sleep.

    How do you know if it’s the flu, and if you should stay home from work?  Or, if it’s a cold, and you should take some meds and head into the office, avoiding having to take a sick day?

    According to Sean Oser, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, those who are sick -- with either the cold or the flu -- should limit their exposure to others, whether that means staying home or taking precautions when in public.  If around other people, for instance, sneezing or coughing into the crook of your elbow as well as sanitizing your hands will help to limit the spread of infection.

    “Soap and water are great, but hand sanitizers work at least as well at killing germs.  And by all means, stay away from those most at risk of complications…the elderly, the very young, people with chronic diseases and anyone with a compromised immune system,” he said.

    Symptoms expressive of a cold tend to develop more slowly over time and include headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, fever and fatigue.  Sneezing, coughing and having a runny nose are further indicative of colds. 

    In addition, experts of MedlinePlus, of the National Institutes of Health, point out that colds are generally contagious the first two to three days of inception and aren’t typically contagious after the seventh day of duration.

    “It can be hard to tell for sure if you have a cold, but some clues might include a low-grade fever, cough, congestion, sore throat, headache, fatigue and body aches,” said Dr. Oser. “Or especially a combination of these.  Having been around others you know with similar symptoms increases the odds as well.” 

    On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details that adults may be contagious with the flu one day before symptoms even develop, as well as five to seven days even after having been sick. In other words, the contagion period of the flu is much longer than that of a cold, and sick individuals should take further precaution to avoid exposing others to the virus.

    In terms of the flu, symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but nausea, chills, bouts of sweating and an upset stomach are more so associated with the illness.  Further, the development of symptoms tends to be rather immediate. 

    “Also, flu symptoms are more likely to come on rather suddenly, in contrast to the more gradual onset of most colds.  You may not be able to tell the difference between a cold, the flu and other infections without seeing your family doctor, who can help diagnose you accurately, identify any potential complications and prescribe appropriate therapy,” explained Dr. Oser.

    If you think you have the cold or the flu, it’s best to rest up.  Cool mist humidifiers, saline nasal sprays and sinus rinses may help to alleviate symptoms. 

    “For adults and older children, over the counter medications like guaifenesin can help reduce congestion and dextromethorphan can help suppress cough.  Pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be helpful for body aches, and sore throats may respond especially well to anesthetic lozenges with numbing medicine in them, like Cepacol or Chloraseptic,” Dr. Oser said.

    He also mentions that pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine can relieve congestion, but that those types of medications may raise blood pressure and interact with other medications. 

    Finally, Dr. Oser emphasizes that if you think you have the flu and are at risk of complications, see a physician immediately.

    “Complications can include pneumonia, inflammation of the lungs, respiratory failure, dehydration and even death,” stated Dr. Oser.  “Those most at risk include the elderly, young children and anyone with chronic diseases like diabetes or lung or heart disease, like COPD and asthma.”

    The workplace poses as a surefire environment that can house strain after strain of the flu and of colds.  If you wouldn’t want your coworker coming into the office, hacking and sneezing while having a fever, it’s best that you avoid shuffling into the workplace when sick as well.

    Therefore, stay home when sick, wash or sanitize your hands thoroughly and often, and for the sake of office productivity, get better -- fast.