That “run-over-by-a-truck” feeling with the flu is something just about everyone can relate to. And yet, there are times when we’ve all mistaken simple cold symptoms as the sign of the more serious variety. Although sore throats, runny noses, coughs and congestion are possible with both—if they are indeed symptoms of flu—it’s likely the onset will be much quicker and severe.
The CDC defines the flu as “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs.” Unlike the common cold, those symptoms are often accompanied by fever, muscle aches, body chills, powerful headaches and debilitating fatigue. In advanced cases, the flu can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory ailments that can require hospitalization.
Good reason to spot the difference early.
From October 1, 2018 through March 30, 2019, there were as many 38.1 million cases of influenza reported in the U.S., of which, more than 500,000 required a visit to the hospital. On one hand, symptoms of flu that don’t clear up after about seven-to-10 days could indicate the presence of a bacterial infection, requiring antibiotics. On the other, if there’s a recurring fever or any shortness in breath, you could be in flu territory.
Cold vs. Flu Differences in Children vs. Adults
At any age, the top things to look for—and look out for—include a persistent fever that spikes over 101 degrees, painful swallowing, and unrelenting congestion. If those symptoms of flu become acute, the best option is always to seek emergency medical attention. According to webmd.com, that goes double for flu symptoms in kids, particularly those who exhibit difficulty breathing, a bluish skin color, extreme irritability, fever with a rash, and/or conditions that take a sudden turn for the worse.
Should you decide to go to a doctor or urgent care center, a swab test of the nose and/or throat is likely to be the first course of treatment, although the diagnosis may not be as sharply defined. This is where the term “flu-like illness” comes into play, pointing to other respiratory viruses that can mirror symptoms of flu; but in practice, are otherwise the outcome of strep throat, simple cold viruses, RSV, parainfluenza, and even rhinovirus—known to be the most common cause of the common cold.
Flu Treatment and Flu Medication
Of course, common knowledge has it that any flu treatment, such as an OTC flu product, is aimed at relieving the symptoms rather than eradicating the virus. Most can expect slow, but steady improvement by getting plenty of rest and fluids. The CDC, however, has suggested certain classes of antiviral drugs can shave a day or two off recovery, provided they are taken within 48 hours at the beginning. For fever, aches, and pains, standard ibuprofen and acetaminophen both come highly recommended.
Physicians also suggest fighting the flu from a pre-emptive standpoint. Research has shown that regular exercise and taking steps to reduce stress in advance can keep symptoms of flu from presenting and/or limiting their impact in the event an unexpected illness does develop. Given the latter, medical professionals of every stripe advise avoiding contact with others and remaining at home until you’re back to full strength.
One Good Turn Deserves Another
Before, during and after any experience with the flu or flu-like symptoms, the first courses of action are to use plenty of soap and water at the sink, cover your coughs and sneezes by tissue or sleeve, and always reach for sanitizers after touching public surfaces of any kind.
Hands-up or hands-down, when it comes to the flu, an ounce of prevention can often be a pound of cure.