Cold and Flu Overview
The common cold, including chest cold and head cold, and seasonal flu are caused by viruses. Use over-the-counter cold medications to relieve symptoms including sore throat, runny nose, congestion, and cough. Flu symptoms are similar, but include fever, headache and muscle soreness. See a doctor who may prescribe antiviral medications Relenza or Tamiflu.
Flu or Cold Symptoms?
When you wake up sneezing, coughing, and have that achy, feverish, can't move a muscle feeling, how do you know whether you have cold symptoms or the flu?
It's important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms. A cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to weeks. The flu can also result in serious health problems such as pneumonia and hospitalizations.
What are common cold symptoms?
Cold symptoms usually begin with a sore throat, which usually goes away after a day or two. Nasal symptoms, runny nose, and congestion follow, along with a cough by the fourth and fifth days. Fever is uncommon in adults, but a slight fever is possible. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold.
With cold symptoms, the nose teems with watery nasal secretions for the first few days. Later, these become thicker and darker. Dark mucus is natural and does not usually mean you have developed a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection.
Several hundred different viruses may cause your cold symptoms.
How long do cold symptoms last?
Cold symptoms usually last for about a week. During the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are contagious. This means you can pass the cold to others, so stay home and get some much-needed rest.
If cold symptoms do not seem to be improving after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics.
Sometimes you may mistake cold symptoms for allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection. If cold symptoms begin quickly and are improving after a week, then it is usually a cold, not allergy. If your cold symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, check with your doctor to see if you have developed an allergy or sinusitis.
What are common flu symptoms?
Flu symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly. Symptoms of flu include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough. Swine flu in particular is also associated with vomiting and diarrhea.
Most flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it's not uncommon to feel run down for a week or more. A common complication of the flu is pneumonia, particularly in the young, elderly, or people with lung or heart problems. If you notice shortness of breath, let your doctor know. Another common sign of pneumonia is fever that comes back after having been gone for a day or two.
Just like cold viruses, flu viruses enter your body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, or mouth. Every time you touch your hand to one of these areas, you could be infecting yourself with a virus, which makes it very important to keep hands germ-free with frequent washing to prevent both flu and cold symptoms.
Sometimes, usually mild
Usual; higher (100-102 F; occasionally higher, especially in young children); lasts 3 to 4 days
General Aches, Pains
Usual; often severe
Usual; can last 2 to 3 weeks
Usual; at the beginning of the illness
Chest Discomfort, Cough
Mild to moderate; hacking cough
Common; can become severe
Sinuscongestion; middle ear infection
Sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infection, pneumonia; can be life-threatening
Wash hands often; avoid close contact with anyone with a cold
Wash hands often; avoid close contact with anyone who has flu symptoms; get the annual flu vaccine
pain reliever/fever reducer
Decongestants, supplements, pain relievers, or fever reducers are available over the counter; over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to young children; prescription antiviral drugs for flu may be given in some cases; call your doctor for more information about treatment.
When do I call the doctor with flu or cold symptoms?
If you already have flu or cold symptoms, it's important to call your doctor if you also have any of the following severe symptoms:
Persistent fever: A fever lasting more than three days can be a sign of another bacterial infection that should be treated.
Painful swallowing: Although a sore throat from a cold or flu can cause mild discomfort, severe pain could mean strep throat, which requires treatment by a doctor.
Persistent coughing: When a cough doesn't go away after two or three weeks, it could be bronchitis, which may need an antibiotic. Postnasal drip or sinusitis can also result in a persistent cough. In addition, asthma is another cause of persistent coughing.
Persistent congestion and headaches: When colds and allergies cause congestion and blockage of sinus passages, they can lead to a sinus infection (sinusitis). If you have pain around the eyes and face with thick nasal discharge after a week, you may have a bacterial infection and possibly need an antibiotic. Most sinus infections, however, do not need an antibiotic.
In some cases, you may need to get emergency medical attention right away. In adults, signs of a crisis include:
- Severe chest pain
- Severe headache
- Shortness of breath
- Persistent vomiting