Cold vs. flu: What do you have and what should you do?

Is it a cold or the flu?. File photo

You’re coughing, aching, have a sore throat, a fever… but is it the common cold or the flu?

It can often be hard to tell, as both have many of the same symptoms. Here is a guide to distinguishing between the two and how to care for each:

What are your symptoms?

When it comes to determining which illness you have, the onset can be a dead giveaway.

“With the flu, most patients remember the actual time that it started. Because it usually starts with an abrupt onset of fever,” Dr. Allyson Koffman-Kahn said .

Following that abrupt onset of a high fever (between 37.8 to 41 C) will come headaches, body aches, malaise and feeling generally unwell.

READ MORE: Proper etiquette during cold and flu season

“And then the respiratory tract-like illness can come. Usually not with a wet cough: usually a dry cough, sore throat, and a runny nose. And it’s going to last two to five days,” Dr. Koffman-Kahn said.

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“This is your typically influenza, but it can be as mild as when you don’t really get much of a fever and it can mimic the common cold.”

You can identify common cold symptoms as, “usually starting with a low fever, nasal congestion and discharge, some sneezing usually, which you don’t really get with the flu, and sore throat.”

Tis the season

“Influenza is not a common thing happening all the time like the common cold. In happens in epidemics at certain times of the year,” said Koffman-Kahn.

If it’s not “flu season” you’re not likely to have influenza. Whereas the common cold can occur at any time of the year.

READ MORE: Lack of sleep puts you at higher risk of catching a cold: study

“It’s a benign, self-limiting illness,” said Koffman-Kahn, with some people getting colds multiple times a year.

How to care for a cold vs the flu

Dr. Koffman recommends plenty of fluids, particularly containing electrolytes, when dealing with both the cold and flu.

For influenza, doctors can prescribe Tamiflu but only if started within the first few days.

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“If it’s already been a few days it’s too late. And you just want to watch the patient and make sure you’re watching for shortness of breath and things that would indicate a secondary [illness], like turning into pneumonia.”

If you’re reasonable healthy, you don’t necessarily need to seek treatment if your fever is not severe.

“If any symptoms are worsening, I always say come in. Always. If something’s just not going away it should be looked at.”

Severe influenza can lead to pneumonia, but for most it is not cause for concern.

READ MORE: A first for flu season: a new, more robust four-strain vaccine

As for a cold, there’s not much you can do but alleviate the symptoms.

“Hydration and rest, some people take cough and cold medication — that’s fine as long as they don’t have any reasons they can’t take it like blood pressure, if they have cardiac problems.”

Dr. Koffman says young children should not be given over the counter cold medication. Health Canada has a list of ingredients for parents to watch for, which should not be given to children under the age of six.

Common colds can turn into sinusitis after seven days, but usually the illness will simply run its course.

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Koffman touts the flu vaccine as the “most appropriate thing to do in this season to prevent yourself from getting it. I can’t stress that enough.”

And of course, washing your hands properly and often is key for avoiding illness and preventing the spread when you are sick. When you can, stay home and avoid exposing your illness to others.

Stay up to date on by checking FluWatch, Canada’s national surveillance system monitoring the spread of flu and flu-like illnesses. Posted every Friday, FluWatch reports provide up-to-date information about flu activity in Canada.

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