Is it a nasty cold, or the flu? Some tips to tell the difference
NPR – Sneezing and coughing can be symptoms of the flu or the common cold.
But knowing which other symptoms signal flu could save your life.
“There’s lots of confusion out there, because both are viral respiratory illnesses,” says Dr. Yul Ejnes, an internal medicine specialist in private practice in Rhode Island and spokesperson for the American College of Physicians. “No one likes to get a cold, but people are more fearful of the flu.”
Suddenly flattened? Think flu
Flu symptoms, Ejnes says, usually start abruptly — though you can spread the virus before symptoms surface.
“Patients can pretty much tell you when the symptoms hit them — after lunch, for example, or yesterday afternoon,” says Ejnes.
A cold, on the other hand, takes a couple of days to build up. You may have a scratchy throat one day and then the nose starts to get stuffy the next day.
You may also develop a fever with a cold. But typically, it’s a “low-grade” rise in temperature, hovering around 99 or 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
With flu, that fever is usually significantly higher — at least 101 degrees. Chills and body aches are another flu hallmark or, as Ejnes says, “feeling like a truck ran you over — where you can’t even move a muscle.” Er, Sorry, No Such Thing As “Stomach Flu”
Dragging yourself out of bed can seem impossible when you have the flu. “You’re just wiped out with total body fatigue,” he says, whereas with a cold, people often “soldier on” and get out of bed for work or social activities.
Heading to work isn’t a good idea, of course, even with a mild cold, because it exposes others to the virus — but lots of people do it. (Colds tend to be most contagious in the first several days of illness.)
There can be congestion and cough from the postnasal drip of a head cold, but it’s not nearly as severe as with flu. Influenza can trigger long bouts of coughing and even trouble breathing.
So, when patients tell Ejnes that their symptoms developed suddenly, their fever is high and their body aches severe, he assumes flu, he says …
‘Red flags’ that escalate risk
There are some important “red flags” to be aware of with the flu, says Zahn. Can Flu Vaccine Give You The Flu?
Watch for “any sort of breathing problems,” he says. Coughing occasionally is one thing, but if you’re having trouble catching your breath, go see your doctor “really quickly.”
Breathing problems can be symptomatic of pneumonia, a common and serious complication of the flu, in which the air sacs of one or both lungs become clogged. Read more.
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