Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: Dealing with the Winter "Crud" - Is It The Flu or A Cold?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012  
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Winter is here. You’ve stocked up on tissue and chicken soup waiting for that usual illness to strike. When the "crud” does target you or a member of your family, you’re often left wondering if it is the common cold, a case of influenza or something else? And more importantly, what can you do to make yourself or a loved one feel better?

"Colds and the seasonal flu are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses,” said Dr. Glenn Nemec, a MAFP member and a family physician at Monticello Clinic in Monticello, MN. "These viruses change constantly forming different strains of viruses which is the reason people can get sick year after year.”

Because colds and the flu are both infections of the respiratory tract, which include the throat, nose, airways and lungs, symptoms are sometimes similar enough that patients aren’t sure what they have. Generally, Dr. Nemec says the flu makes a person feel much worse than the common cold does. Family physicians recommend patients use this list of differences listed below to help distinguish between a cold and a case of seasonal influenza.

Onset of Illness – A cold develops over a few days, while flu symptoms come on suddenly and severely.

Fever – Colds rarely cause fevers and if they do it’s usually under 102° F. The flu almost always causes a fever.

Body Aches and Chills – These are mild with a cold, but often severe with the flu. It makes your entire body feel sick.

Congestion/Sniffles – A runny or stuffy nose and sneezing is likely with a cold, but not typical with the flu.

Cough - A person with the flu may have a mild cough with a cold, but a dry cough is often intense with the flu.

Headaches – Headaches are rare with a cold, but common with the flu and can be severe.

Exhaustion - A cold can sometimes make a person feel tired. Fatigue with the flu is usually extreme.

Appetite – A person’s appetite is typically not affected with a cold, but it is often decreased with the flu.

Being able to tell the difference between a cold and the flu is important because it helps a patient decide if self-care is appropriate. "They know they feel lousy, but does that warrant a trip to see their family physician, or do they simply need some rest and TLC to help their bodies fight off the illness,” said Dr. Nemec. "This can sometimes take a week or more.” As a reminder, a fever is the body’s natural response to fight sickness so unless a person is extremely uncomfortable, it is sometimes best to let the fever run its course.

There are no prescription medicines to treat colds, but if caught within the first 48 hours, antiviral medicine can be given to patients with influenza to lessen the severity of the symptoms and the duration of the illness. Your family physician can give you a test in the office to determine if what you suspect as the flu is an actual strain of influenza. It’s important to note that because colds and flu are caused by viruses, and not bacterial infections, antibiotics are not useful in treating either illness.

"Patients often expect their doctors to prescribe an antibiotic every time they get sick,” said Dr. Nemec. "This does more harm than good because it leads to antibiotic resistance.” This means antibiotics eventually stop working to kill the bacteria and can lead to more drug-resistant germs which put everyone at risk.

Typically both colds and the flu will go away on their own, but Dr. Nemec says you should not hesitate to contact your family doctor if symptoms change or get worse.

"Some bacterial diseases that can be treated with antibiotics, like strep throat or pneumonia, also can look like the flu or a cold,” said Dr. Nemec. "And the flu can lead to dangerous complications, especially for people with weakened immune systems, certain chronic health conditions, infants and the elderly.”

The best way to fight a cold or the flu is to keep yourself or a loved one from getting sick in the first place. Ways to prevent illness include proper hand-washing with soap and water, eating a balanced diet and getting at least eight hours of sleep a night to keep your immune system healthy. Also, get your flu shot! You have a better chance of protecting yourself from the flu than a cold every year because there is a seasonal flu vaccine you can get to fight the strains of virus predicted to cause illness.

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organization in the United States with more than 103,000 members.

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