It’s that time of year: cold and flu season. But how do you tell if you have a run-of-the-mill cold or the more serious flu? “The difference is really the severity and the symptoms,” says Laurie Hommema, M.D., program director at the Riverside Family Practice Center.
We talked to Hommema about how, exactly, to tell the difference between the cold and the flu — and what to do if you have either.
How to Tell if You Have the Cold or Flu
Did you start to feel sick all of a sudden?
Colds tend to start slowly and build, while the flu tends to hit suddenly. With colds, Hommema says, “patients will often say they feel it coming on.” But with the flu, “you feel bad immediately.”
Do you feel like you can’t get out of bed?
Colds can cause mild fatigue, but with the flu, Hommema says, “people often say they feel like they have been hit by a bus.”
Do you have a high fever and headache and feel sore all over?
Flu symptoms can include high fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, headache, runny nose, cough, diarrhea and vomiting, Hommema says. Cold symptoms, on the other hand, aren’t quite as severe and can include runny nose, coughing, sneezing, sore throat and mild fatigue.
What to Do for Cold or Flu
Should you stay home?
If you have a cold, you can probably go to work as long as you practice good hygiene like washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough. (No one likes that colleague who gets them sick.) If you have the flu, you should definitely stay home, Hommema says.
What can you do to feel better?
Both the cold and flu are viruses, so antibiotics won’t help, Hommema says. What’s called for instead, she says, is “drinking plenty of fluids, staying hydrated, [getting] extra sleep and, if you have a fever, taking ibuprofen” or another over-the-counter pain reliever.
Should you head to the doctor?
There are antivirals treatments for the flu so calling your doctor early is a good idea. Pregnant women, the elderly and people with a chronic disease like diabetes, asthma or COPD should absolutely talk to their doctors about flu symptoms, Hommema says. Parents with young children exhibiting flu symptoms should talk to their child’s doctor, too. If your symptoms worsen, you have trouble breathing or you can’t keep fluids down, you should also seek medical help.
Feeling like you have the flu? Schedule an appointment with a doctor today.