Ugh, Is This a Cold or the Flu?

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During flu season, a runny nose or cough may make you wonder if it’s time to see a doctor.

Do you need antibiotics? Is it too late to get a flu shot? How long will you be stuck in bed? You can answer these questions—and feel better faster—by figuring out if you’ve caught the common cold or have come down with the flu.

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?cold or flu

Both the common cold and the seasonal flu are contagious viruses (not bacterial infections), and they have some of the same symptoms. But that’s where the similarities end.

“The common cold typically develops slowly over a few days, beginning with sneezing, stuffy nose, a sore throat and coughing. It can drag on and make you feel run down, but you don’t get very ill with just a cold,” says Dr. E. Robert Schwartz, a family medicine physician with the University of Miami Health System.

“The onset of the flu, on the other hand, is usually pretty quick and includes fever, chills, muscle aches and pains, headaches, chest discomfort, weakness, fatigue and possibly nausea and diarrhea. Based on your immune system, the flu can last 5 to 14 days. A cold lasts 2 to 10 days. Kids and the elderly might take longer to recover.”

Do you need to see a doctor when you feel sick?

The simple answer is no, unless you’re experiencing serious complications. If you have only a cold or the flu, prescription antibiotics aren’t going to help and may even make you feel worse. While the flu vaccine is safe and effective, it works only as a preventive measure. It is recommended that you get vaccinated every year before the start of the flu season.

The best way to respond to a cold or flu is to treat the symptoms until they pass and get some much-needed rest.

You can take over-the-counter medications as directed, such as acetaminophen to reduce fever and ibuprofen to reduce muscle aches and headaches.

Cough medicine isn’t always the best way to treat a cough. “Over-suppressing the cough can leave mucus and fluid trapped in the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. Coughing is the body’s natural mechanism to push fluid out of the lungs. Try drinking tea with honey instead to soothe a nagging cough.”

Other over-the-counter cold and flu remedies?

  • Breathe in steam to reduce decongestion
  • Use a neti pot to clear nasal passages
  • Try a mild nasal steroid spray to reduce nasal inflammation

Don’t ignore your body’s increased need for restorative rest. Sleep when you’re feeling run down. And drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration, which can make you feel weaker and lower your body’s defenses.

When should you see the doctor?

“If you typically get very ill whenever you’re sick, and are experiencing a high fever plus upper respiratory symptoms after being sick for just a day or two, you can ask your healthcare provider about influenza testing,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Flu tests can tell your doctor in a few minutes or several hours if you have the flu.”

If you test positive for the flu and have severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication that can lessen the virus’s length and severity, if taken with 48 hours of the first signs of illness. Note: this medication does not help treat the common cold.

If your symptoms worsen over the course of a week and new symptoms appear, it might be the sign of another infection, such as sinusitis, an ear infection, or pneumonia. Sometimes these secondary infections set in while your immune system is busy fighting off the cold or flu. After a physical exam, testing and possibly a chest X-ray, your doctor or an urgent care team member can tell you if you need antibiotics to treat these bacterial infections.

Children, the elderly, and adults with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for health complications that begin with a cold or flu. If your child is having trouble breathing, has a fever plus a rash, won’t interact or respond to you, doesn’t want to be held, or has a recurring fever or cough, he or she needs immediate medical attention.

You should see a doctor if you:

  •  Feel sick for a few days
  •  Are now having difficulty breathing or experiencing shortness of breath
  • Experience chest or abdominal pain, sudden dizziness, mental confusion, or persistent vomiting

Also, talk to your doctor if you had flu-like symptoms that improved then returned with fever and a more severe cough.

“While a cough can be troubling and annoying when it lasts for weeks,” says Dr. Schwartz, “it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to see a doctor or take any prescription medication.”

Still not sure? Visit to learn more.


Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. 

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