Cold or flu – sometimes it is hard to tell, even for your doctor

Hilden_DavidDavid Hilden, MD, specialist in Internal Medicine and host of WCCO Radio’s Healthy Matters says, “This is especially tricky if you have never had influenza. Since colds can make you feel really miserable, lots of people mistake it for influenza. But … once you get influenza, you usually know it as it hits most people much harder than any cold they have experienced.

“A few common features of flu can usually tip you off,” Dr. Hilden adds. “Flu tends to come on very suddenly and severely – sometimes people even know the time of day when their fever, aches and cough hit, whereas colds tend to make a slower and less dramatic entrance. Though it is a respiratory (lung) infection, influenza can cause whole-body aches and pains, headache and extreme fatigue. Colds tend to stay above the neck – and usually don’t have a fever.”

The good news is that for most people, both colds and influenza will get better with rest and the passing of time (though colds usually last about a week, flu sometimes longer). However, for higher risk people (elderly, children, pregnant women, or those with chronic illness like lung disease, asthma, heart disease, diabetes or cancer), influenza can be very serious, even deadly, so those folks should seek medical attention.

“The best way to prevent both colds and influenza is to cover your cough (by coughing or sneezing into your sleeve and NOT your hand), washing hands frequently (germs are passed on common objects like doorknobs and keyboards), and stay home from work or school if you have a fever or cough,” Dr. Hilden says. “And most important, for influenza, get your annual vaccine – it is still the best preventive measure available.”

Cold and flu symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks, but most go away on their own with at-home rest and drinking plenty of fluids such as water and tea. If symptoms get worse or differ from those listed here, contact your doctor.

To make an appointment at a Hennepin County Medical Center clinic, call 612-873-6963. Sick kids can come to our new after-hours Pediatric Clinic without an appointment, Monday-Thursday, 5-8 pm.

Symptoms Cold Flu
Fever Rare Usual; high (100˚F to 102˚F), lasts three to four days
Headache Rare Common
Aches and pains Slight Usual; often severe
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usual; can last up to three weeks
Extreme exhaustion Never Usual; at the beginning of the illness
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort; cough Mild to moderate; hacking cough Common, can become severe
Complications Sinus congestion, ear infection, asthma Bronchitis, pneumonia; can be life-threatening
Treatment Antihistamines, decongestants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines Antiviral medicines – see your doctor
Prevention Wash hands often, avoid close contact with anyone with a cold Annual vaccination, wash hands often, avoid close contact with anyone with the flu

Source: National Institutes of Health,

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