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Do you have the flu or the common cold? How to tell the difference

March 21, 2014

We’ve all been there before. You wake up one morning with a mild fever. As the day wears on, you develop a cough and a severe headache. One minute, you’re cold, and the next minute, you feel hot. By the end of the day, you have a high fever, and it feels as if every muscle in your body aches. Sound familiar? These are classic signs that you may be getting the flu.

Each year from October to May, thousands of local residents are affected by the flu virus. With cases of the flu popping up at work and at our children’s schools, it is important to recognize the signs and learn how to protect yourself from developing this highly contagious infection.

Also known as influenza, the flu is a serious respiratory illness that infects the nose, throat and lungs. It can occur suddenly without warning and last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In more severe cases, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia, dehydration, sinus infections and ear infections. Certain individuals, including children, pregnant women and those over the age of 65, are at greater risk for developing such complications. A person who has the flu can infect others for up to five to seven days after becoming sick.

The Flu versus the Common Cold

While the flu may seem similar to the common cold, the two are actually caused by different viruses. Since both are respiratory illnesses, however, it can often be hard to tell the difference. Typically, the flu will begin with a fever, chills, severe muscle pains and a headache. Other symptoms may include coughing, nasal congestion, sore throat, fatigue and even nausea.

On the other hand, a cold is much less severe than the flu. The most common symptoms of a cold include a sore throat, cough, congestion and runny nose. Fever, headache, chills and muscle aches are rarely present or are very mild. While cold symptoms often develop gradually over a number of days, flu symptoms come on abruptly and are usually severe.

With most viral infections, it is recommended to wait a few days before seeking treatment. However, that is not the case with the flu. For treatment to work best, it is necessary to see a doctor within two days of the onset of symptoms. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications or antibiotics. In addition to taking medications, it is also important that you get plenty of rest, drink clear liquids and stay home until your fever is gone for at least 24 hours.

Protect Yourself with the Flu Vaccine

One of the best defenses against the flu is to get the flu vaccine each year. Unfortunately, many people decide not to get the flu vaccine because they believe that it can cause the flu. This is a common myth that is simply not true. The flu vaccine is made with a killed, noninfectious virus, so it is impossible for it to cause the flu. However, the flu vaccine does activate your immune system. This may result in mild cold-like symptoms that last a few days after you get the vaccine.

While the flu vaccine cannot prevent every strain of the flu, it typically provides good protection against the common strains. Be sure to get your flu vaccine this season before you or your loved ones are affected by the flu. If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of the flu, schedule an appointment with one of our physicians as soon as possible.

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