The Flu and The Common Cold Demystified: What You Need to Know This Fall

When we say “Hello, autumn,” we often are also saying “Hello, germs.” Whether it’s the change in the weather or the many (many!) germs your kids bring home if you have school-aged children, this is when we tend to get the first cold or flu bug of the season.

The problem is that most of us are often not sure if we have a cold or the flu—and what we should do about it. And that’s important because while both are respiratory illness, the treatment can be different, even if the symptoms seem similar—and it’s vital to realize that flu can be far more serious.

Here’s a brief guide to the cold versus the flu, and what to do about each one, as well as how (ideally!) to prevent them.

Flu Symptoms

Often assumed to be associated with stomach distress, that is actually only one of the symptoms and not always the most persistent one. Instead, a flu often presents itself with fever, fatigue and muscle or body and headaches, along with common cold symptoms, which include cough, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose. With the flu, you’ll also find that the symptoms come on abruptly…you might feel fine in the morning and by the afternoon feel as though you’ve been hit by a truck.

Cold Symptoms

A cold usually comes on a lot more gradually—you start feeling a tickle in your throat or your nose starts to run a bit. Then over the course of a few days, you’ll experience all the normal cold symptoms—sore throat, coughing, stuffy nose, sneezing and some mild chest pain. However, it’s rare to have a fever or overall aches or pains.

Diagnosing the Difference

The only way to know for sure if you have the flu is to get a test—the rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDT). But often your healthcare provider will diagnose you just based on the symptoms you describe and their own judgement. With a cold, there is no test to know for sure.

And while it’s hard to know if a visit to the doctor is in order, it can be best to err on the side of caution if your “cold” symptoms persist, as it might indicate something more acute, such as a sinus or ear infection, bronchitis or strep throat. And you should always call your doctor if you have a fever that lasts more than three days.

Treating the Flu

If you do have the flu, your provider may prescribe an antiviral drug—particularly if you are at higher risk for the flu based on your age (especially adults 65 or older or if you have young children) as well as pregnant women and those with conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart disease.

These drugs can help lessen the symptoms and hopefully help you fight off the flu without needing to go the hospital—that’s right, flu is no joke and serious complications can ensue. Otherwise, the best treatment is plenty of rest—don’t be a hero and try to do too much. Not only do you run the risk of infecting others, but it will prolong your symptoms and could make them worse. You can also treat cold-like symptoms as described below.

Treating a Cold

Often when we are sick, we go to the doctor in hopes of receiving a “magic pill” that will alleviate our symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no such wonderful elixir for a cold; antibiotics have no effect on a cold. But they can cause side effects and can make them less effective when you do need them, so there’s no need to ask for them. However, antibiotics are necessary if you have a bacterial infection, such as an ear or sinus infection.

The best treatment for a cold is over-the-counter products, such as saline drops to clear your nose, decongestants, gargling with salt water and pain relievers such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

And if you must go out, practice good hygiene by covering your nose and mouth with a tissue (not your hand!) when you cough or sneeze.

Preventing a Cold or Flu

The best prevention is good hand-washing habits so you don’t unwittingly pass on a virus you pick up on a doorknob or elevator button to your nose or eyes. You’ll also want to steer clear of those exhibiting symptoms, and pay special attention to using disinfectant wipes in your house or around the office if a family member or colleague is suffering.

It’s also wise to build up a healthy immune system by making sure you’re eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep.

And, the best treatment for flu is to get a flu shot. Whether you think you need one or not—you do. It’s easier than ever to get one these days—they are often offered in local stores and at your healthcare provider’s office. Make sure to talk to your HR department or find out special options they might know of. It’s in everyone’s best interest to try to avoid being sick this fall and winter.