Please note: This information was as current as we could make it on the date given above. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.
Flu and Colds
How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?
Colds and the flu (also called influenza) have many of the same symptoms. A cold is generally mild, while the flu tends to be more severe.
A cold often starts with feeling tired, sneezing, coughing, and having a runny nose. You may not have a fever, or you may run a low fever (just one or two degrees higher than usual). You also may have muscle aches, a scratchy or sore throat, watery eyes, and a headache.
The flu starts suddenly and hits hard. You'll probably feel weak and tired, and have a fever, dry cough, runny nose, chills, muscle aches, severe headache, eye pain, and a sore throat. It usually takes longer to get over the flu than it takes to get over a cold.
What causes colds and the flu?
Viruses. More than 100 different viruses can cause colds. There are not as many viruses that cause the flu. That's why there is a shot to help prevent the flu but not a shot for colds.
What about medicine?
No medicine can cure a cold or the flu. Antibiotics don't work against viruses. Some medicines can help relieve some of your cold or flu symptoms. Check with your doctor before giving any medicine to children. Many cold and flu products are available without a prescription. See the box below for a guide to common ingredients in cold and flu products.
Some prescription medicines can help flu symptoms. These medicines may help reduce the severity of symptoms if you start taking them soon after you begin to get sick. These medicines come as pills or as an inhaler. The inhaled type may cause problems for some people with asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
What is in over-the-counter cold and flu medicines?
These ingredients are found in many cold and flu medicines. Read labels carefully. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
Should I call my doctor?
In most cases, you don't need to see your doctor when you have a cold or the flu (see box to the right). However, call your doctor if you have any of the following:
- A cold that lasts for more than 10 days.
- Earache or drainage from your ear.
- Severe pain in your face or forehead.
- Temperature higher than 102°F.
- Shortness of breath.
- Hoarseness, sore throat, or a cough that won't go away.
Ways to treat your cold and flu symptoms
This handout provides a general overview on this topic and may not apply to everyone. To find out if this handout applies to you and to get more information on this subject, talk to your family doctor.
Visit familydoctor.org for information on this and many other health-related topics.
Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family
Permission is granted to print and photocopy this material for nonprofit educational uses. Written permission is required for all other uses, including electronic uses.
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