Along with the approaching holiday cheer, cold and flu season is also looming in the background, ready to rear its ugly head. Both viruses present with similar symptoms, which can make it difficult to differentiate between the two. So how do you know if the reason you are “feeling under the weather” is a case of the common cold or something nastier, like the flu?

Woman blowing her nose

Cold and flu symptoms are painstakingly similar. It’s always best to have your symptoms assessed by a physician when feeling “under the weather” this flu season.

According to Margaret Bosenbark, clinical instructor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing, checking with your physician about any initial, unwelcome symptoms–however mild they may be–is key.

“Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the cold and flu if you don’t receive a flu swab from your health care provider,” said Bosenbark, an infectious disease nurse.

Symptoms of the cold and flu are painstakingly similar—fever, headache, stuffy nose, general aches and pains, fatigue and weakness, and sore throat or coughing. “I tell my patients if you don’t know you have the flu–assume that you do. There’s no reason to delay getting tested this flu season and lose the small window of treatment. Anti-viral medications are only prescribed within the first two days of symptoms,” Bosenbark said.

Bosenbark noted the most important symptom to pay attention to is fever. “A fever is classified as a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour or more. Those stricken with the flu will normally have a fever around 100-102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher,” she said.

According to Bosenbark, with a cold, your temperature could be elevated­–which means it’s above the normal human body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but below the fever range. “Patients with the flu will also experience extreme fatigue,” Bosenbark said. “You will be zapped of all of your energy and unable to perform daily tasks. This is not usually seen with a cold.”

A persistent, dry cough could also be a signal you have something worse than the common cold. “This persistent coughing is one reason why we treat the flu so aggressively, since it can progress into pneumonia,” Bosenbark said.

Cold and flu terms are often used together, and this could contribute to the rising problem of why many people think they should “work through a cold” or “tough out” the flu. Bosenbark emphasized that pharmaceutical companies should stop marketing cold and flu medications together.

“While the cold and flu are both viruses, we can only treat the flu,” she said. Instead of labeling a medication as ‘treating’ a cold we should market medications that speak to the symptomology­–such as upper respiratory or nasal symptom relief. We don’t have the ability to treat the cold. We can only provide symptom relief.”

An anti-viral medication called Tamiflu is available to alleviate the flu virus. “Tamiflu is vital,” Bosenbark said. “It does actually attack the flu virus and can shorten the illness by several days. It is one virus we can effectively attack, but it must be taken within two days of the onset of flu symptoms to work.”

Bosenbark stressed that it is imperative people recognize the beginning of flu symptoms, even on the first day. “We all think that initial day of not feeling well doesn’t count, but it is extremely important,” she said. “If you have the flu you don’t want to shorten the amount of time treatment is available to you.”

When asked about best practices to prevent the cold and flu, Bosenbark said getting a flu vaccine, washing your hands and assessing your out of town family’s health before travel is your best defense against sickness.

“I can’t say it enough. Make sure you are washing your hands every day. Use the anti-bacterial wipes at grocery stores and practice good hygiene when eating out. We need more people to understand the huge transmissibility of diseases by our hands,” she said.

— Lauren Thompson

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