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Health Watch: Is it the flu? Here’s how to tell

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If you’re trying to determine whether you’ve got the flu, or just a winter cold, it can be a little confusing because they share many of the same symptoms – coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever, etc.

“A lot of people think that they have the flu and so “the flu” has kind of become this generic term,” said Dr. Ulysses Wu, the Chief of Infectious Diseases at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, “It’s almost like Kleenex is the same as tissue, so people say that they have the flu but when they may not have had the flu.”

For example, the “stomach flu” is not actually the flu. It’s usually the result of norovirus. Likewise, many less severe sicknesses that more closely resemble the flu are not the flu, but often an infection from a group of virus called adenoviruses. They are spread the same way, through contact with an infected person, often through a cough or sneeze, or from contact with surfaces covered in the virus, like light switches or door knobs.

In addition to flu-like symptoms, they can cause Pink Eye and diarrhea in children, and in rare cases can lead to pneumonia with life-threatening complications. Again, though, that is rare, and in general, adenoviruses cause a much less severe illness than influenzer. Doctor Wu said that is a good way to tell the difference – by how hard the sickness hits you, and how quickly.

“A regular cold or some of these other viruses are what we call insidious. It approaches you and you start feeling a little bit ill - you may have a runny nose and it’s just over days,” he said.

“The flu? You feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. It happens fairly severe, fairly instantaneously. Most people remember when they get the flu because they got the flu and usually they come back to me and they say, ‘Oh, I really wish I got the flu shot this year,’ because it hits you that hard.”

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