A few weeks ago, my daughter woke up with a runny nose. She asked to stay home, but since she had no fever and no other symptoms, I sent her to school. A few days later, she was fine, and I was sure I’d made the right choice — until I woke up with the same symptoms. My daughter had simply said “I don’t feel well,” but when I caught it, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. As I lay in bed and tried to find a babysitter for my toddler, I wondered whether I’d caught the dreaded flu.
How to Tell if it’s a Cold or the Flu?
Both a cold and the flu are caused by a virus, but while there are no treatments for a cold, there are antivirals for flu. If left untreated, the flu can make you feel ill for weeks- causing you to miss days from work…and it can even result in serious complications such as pneumonia or hospitalization.
In general, flu symptoms are similar to a cold — just a lot worse. However, there are some guidelines that can help you tell the difference. The flu usually comes on suddenly, often within 3 to 6 hours with high fever, severe headache and muscle aches. Patients often describe it as “getting hit by a truck”. Most people will also develop extreme fatigue, a characteristically dry cough, and a lot of chest discomfort.
Cold symptoms, on the other hand, are usually mild and begin gradually with a sore throat, runny nose with clear mucous and sneezing. Fever and aches are rare or only very mild. After 2-3 days the congestion may become worse with thick green or yellow mucous. Symptoms slowly subside over 10 to 14 days.
If you really need to know which type of illness you have, your doctor can take a quick swab of the inside of your nose to see if you have the flu. If you do, there are antiviral medications that will make you feel better faster and also prevent you from spreading it to others. They must be given no later than 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, so if you suspect the flu, call your doctor right away.
Simple Things You Can Do to Help Prevent Yourself from Getting a Cold or the Flu:
- Get the flu shot. The flu vaccine is your first line of defense and will reduce the likelihood that you get the flu by 70 to 90 percent.
- Wash your hands frequently. Teach your children to wash their hands as well.
- Use a hand sanitizer. When you don’t have access to soap and water using a hand sanitizer like Purell is a convenient and effective option.
- Keep surfaces clean. Wash your children’s toys after playtime and keep countertops and handles disinfected.
- Don’t touch your eyes, mouth or nose. These are direct entry points for germs.
- Cover your mouth. Cold and flu virus are present in respiratory droplets and are highly contagious so use a tissue or the crux of your elbow to prevent their spread when you sneeze.
- Don’t share glasses or utensils.
Despite my feeling of “being hit by a truck,” the fact that I never developed a fever and got well within a couple of days indicates that my recent illness was just a cold, so I don’t feel too guilty about sending my daughter to school. But next time she says she’s feeling sick, I’m going to try really hard not to catch it.
More Tips for Cold & Flu Season:
- The Little-Known Truth About Colds vs. The Flu
- 6 Secrets to Avoiding the Flu
- Is it Safe to Get a Flu Shot While You’re Pregnant?