The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu, and When to See a Doctor

The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu, and When to See a Doctor

And so it begins. The leaves are changing, the days are getting cooler, and across the country, the sniffles have started. In homes and schools and offices, tissues and hand sanitizer are making their yearly appearance on desks and counters. Cold and flu season is here. We always hear it phrased together like that – “cold and flu season.” But how do you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

Both illnesses are viral, not bacterial, and both are circulating through the population all year long. But in fall and winter, the numbers of people infected with either virus climb steadily, sometimes with severe consequences. Why do these viruses suddenly go on the attack? What is the difference between them? And how do you know when it’s time to see a doctor? Let’s walk through that information together here.

Why Now?

Since the viruses responsible for colds and influenza are always around, why do cases of infection pick up steam in the fall and peak in the winter? There isn’t a definitive answer to that, but scientists have come up with a few theories:

  1. Damp weather. There is some evidence that wet weather makes the viruses easier to spread. Even in tropical countries where there are no significant seasonal temperature drops, influenza is more prevalent during the rainy season.
  2. School children. After the summer break, schools are filled with hundreds of children in close quarters. Many students have not had a chance to build up immunity to any cold and flu viruses, so they are quick to succumb. They then bring the virus home to their families, and it spreads from there.
  3. Less time outside. As the days get shorter and cooler, and schools get back in session, people are spending less time outside getting fresh air. Fresh air provides your body’s immune system with much-needed oxygen for fighting off germs.

Just the Facts

Before looking closely at the difference between a cold and influenza, it’s important to dispel some misconceptions and myths about these viruses.

  1. Influenza is not the same as the stomach flu. Different viruses cause these two ailments. Flu shots will not protect you against the stomach flu.
  2. Speaking of flu shots, they cannot give you influenza. The virus in the flu vaccine is inactive. Anecdotes of people catching the flu from the vaccine are inaccurate. Those people likely already had the influenza virus percolating in their systems before getting the shot, and the symptoms showed up just in time to convince them that the vaccine caused the illness.
  3. Being outside in the cold does not give you a cold or any other illness. Contrary to what your grandmother might have feared, this simply isn’t true. The virus must get into your system for you to catch a cold or the flu. It is true, however, that keeping your body warm enough in cold weather does help the body to do its job of fighting off viruses that try to work their way in.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

When trying to decide which virus has taken hold of you or a loved one, there are some key pieces of information to notice: onset of symptoms, range and severity of symptoms, and duration of symptoms. Here is an overview of what to look for.

  • Onset: Cold viruses typically bring on symptoms slowly. You may feel a little congested or have a scratchy throat off and on for a day or two before fully succumbing to a cold. Influenza, on the other hand, comes on quickly, often within a matter of hours. You may go to work feeling fine, and then by lunchtime feel cold and achy and need to go home.
  • Range and severity: Cold symptoms typically stay in the nose-to-throat range. That is, congestion, sneezing, and a sore throat are the most common complaints, with a cough thrown in occasionally for good measure. Influenza brings much more for you to deal with as it attacks the whole body. Headaches, chills, fever, and body aches are highly likely with the flu, as well as a deep and painful cough.
  • Duration: Cold symptoms frequently subside within 3-5 days, and may or may not impact daily activities, depending on severity. Flu symptoms, however, can last up to a week or more and pretty much bring normal daily activities such as work and school to a halt.

Cold or Flu, When Should You See a Doctor?

When you are feeling crummy, whether it’s from a cold virus or influenza, usually all you want to do is crawl into bed and wait it out. Sometimes that is the best thing to do, but with these viruses, here are four times that you should get to the doctor instead:

  1. High fever: For adults, a temperature of 102 or higher that can’t be controlled with fever reducers or that lasts for more than a few days should trigger a trip to the physician. Although viruses do not respond to antibiotics, there are antiviral medications that can bring you some relief. Furthermore, both the cold and flu can develop into a secondary infection like bronchitis or pneumonia, and then an antibiotic may be necessary.
  2. Intense headaches: If you have severe headaches that do not respond to pain relievers or that impact your ability to think clearly, it’s time to seek medical care. These headaches may indicate that a more serious problem has developed.
  3. Underlying conditions: Individuals with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or immune disorders should be quick to see the doctor when cold or flu symptoms present themselves. Even a simple cold can create significant complications for these patients, so it is best to check in with a physician right away.
  4. Heart palpitations: Dehydration from cold and flu viruses can put your heart under stress and cause rapid pulse. However, viruses can attack the heart lining, causing serious problems. Don’t wait and wonder on this one. Go see the doctor.

Whether you need to get the flu vaccine or think you may already have the flu, the doctors at Camas Swale are here to help. Contact us today, and we will help get you feeling great.