While it is correct that your top priority when you're sick is to get better, it actually does pay to figure out what you have. Kathy Mullins, RN, Systems Director of Infection Prevention for Trident Medical Center and Summerville Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, says understanding the differences between these common scourges of the fall and winter can help you treat yourself most effectively, recuperate quicker and avoid passing your germs to others.
Some symptoms overlap, some are distinct
It can be tricky to tease out a diagnosis of cold or flu based on your own symptoms, since there is considerable overlap between the two.
Both the cold and flu may entail sneezing, stuffy nose and sore throat, though those symptoms tend to be more common with the cold. Both ailments also often involve a cough, though chest discomfort that accompanies a cold is typically less severe than that associated with the flu. You may also feel fatigue or weakness with both cold and flu, but the severity tends to be greater with the flu.
Meanwhile, some of the flu's hallmark symptoms - body aches, chills and headache - are largely unique to that affliction, as is fever. A fever associated with the flu tends to last three to four days, while fever is rare in adults with a cold.
Another clue you may have a flu rather than a cold is if your symptoms arrived all of a sudden. Cold symptoms tend to unfurl slowly, while a flu tends to hit you hard, quickly, and results in a more severe illness.
Flu testing and treatment
Most people without risk for flu complications don't need to be tested for the flu, since their course of treatment - rest, treating fever with acetaminophen, drinking clear fluids - doesn't differ appreciably from the way they'd handle a cold.
In certain cases, the flu may require emergency medical help. Call your doctor immediately or head to the ER if you experience:
- Flu symptoms that seem to improve but then return with fever and a worsening cough
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Dizziness or confusion
- Severe vomiting
Likewise, children or infants showing any of the following signs should receive immediate medical attention:
- Fast breathing or difficulty breathing
- Blue skin color
- Not eating or drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up from naps or not interacting
- Excessive irritability
- Fever with a rash
- Crying without tears
- Fewer wet diapers than normal
"If you're unable to get your fever down or you become so sick you can't care for yourself and you have no one to help you - particularly if you start vomiting or having diarrhea - you would definitely want to seek medical attention," says Mullins.
Can you get the flu in your stomach?
Stomach flu typically spreads through contaminated food or water, and you can also pick it up through contact with the fluids of with an infected person or by touching contaminated surfaces. Less commonly, the bug can be transmitted via droplets projected into the air via vomit, as opposed to the sneeze- or cough-borne particles that transmit the flu.
Although there are no anti-viral treatments to cure stomach flu, the good news is that viral gastroenteritis typically clears up within a day or two.
Rest and fluids are typically all you need to recover, but if diarrhea lasts for more than a few days or becomes bloody, or if you experience any of the following signs of extreme dehydration, contact your care provider:
- Confusion or dizziness
- Dry or sticky mouth and throat
- Decrease in urination or concentrated urine that looks dark yellow
- Unusual sleepiness, fussiness or lack of tears when crying (typically seen in children)
Severe dehydration may require hospitalization and IV treatment. Seek medical attention if you have a fever greater than 104 degrees - or 102 degrees in children - that you can't break with Tylenol, or if you are unable to care for yourself
Steering clear of cold, flu stomach flu
Despite the differences in treatment approaches to cold, flu and stomach flu, there's one simple preventive measure that helps for all three.
"Cold, flu and stomach flu are all very, very contagious," says Mullins, "so I can't stress this enough: Wash your hands. Keep your hands away from your face. And for the flu, get the vaccine."