Is it a Cold or the Flu?

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So how can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu and does that difference really matter?

Both colds and flu symptoms include runny nose, cough, sneezing, and feeling run down there are several differences that can clue you in that it is the flu. First, the severity of the cough and feeling run down is usually much worse with the flu and with flu you are more likely to have a fever above 100 degrees and will feel generally achy which the common cold usually does not do. Knowing that this is likely the flu and not a cold can be important because while a cold is usually just annoying, the flu can be much more severe and could cause pneumonia, bronchitis, or even death if it gets out of hand. There is a drug called Tamiflu for the flu but it needs to be given within two days of the onset of severe symptoms so catching on early that this isn’t just a normal cold and telling your doctor is important.

Unfortunately, if you have gotten the flu shot this year, you do have to worry about the flu. About half of the infections are due to a H3N2 strain of the Influenza Virus and this variant is not in the flu vaccine. They cannot put every type of flu virus variant in the vaccine so they guess which ones are the most common ones which will infect people. The problem is that the H3N2 strain has historically been associated with more severe flu symptoms, cases of pneumonia and even death. Having said that, getting the flu vaccine can still make the symptoms at their peak less severe and can shorten the amount of time people are sick because it is close enough to give the body a head start on figuring out how to fight it but not good enough to amount a huge immune response when you are first infected and preventing disease in the first place. So while it is not 100% effective, children, the elderly and those with lung diseases should really consider getting the flu shot sooner rather than later.

Tamiflu slows down the virus from making copies of itself so in effect, it makes your body aware of the virus but the virus doesn’t overwhelm the immune system as much and your body have more time to figure out how to get rid of it. That is why it is critical to get it on board for patients at high risk, like we described, at the earliest signs of the flu. The drug can cause a small number of people to have strange thoughts or act strangely so keep that in mind and report that side effect to your doctor as soon as possible. Most people just get an upset stomach.

If you are a child, elderly, or have lung diseases, call your doctor right away. If you were generally healthy, call when your fever lasts more than 3 days, you have difficulty breathing or wheeze when you breathe, or cannot keep liquids down without vomiting for more than a day. Whenever your symptoms are so bad that you feel horrible or at risk, it is better to call.


Pharmacist Dr. Michael White from the UCONN School of Pharmacy