It’s common to call any respiratory illness “the flu”. It may actually be a very bad cold, but the symptoms make us feel so awful that it’s easy to assume we are suffering from the flu. However, influenza and the common cold are two very different things. They may share some symptoms, but influenza can be deadly and the common cold usually is not. Knowing the difference between the two can lead to appropriate, and sometimes life-saving, treatment.
Influenza is an acute respiratory infection that can cause mild to severe illness. Each year, flu outbreaks are caused by a variety of flu viruses. The mild symptoms can be similar to that of a cold. In fact, if the symptoms come on gradually it probably is a cold. However, if the symptoms occur abruptly in a short period of time and are much worse than those of a common cold it may be influenza. Symptoms can include:
- Fever (for some people)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Sometimes diarrhea and vomiting
How do you know if you have the flu or the common cold?
As you can see, it can be confusing to determine if the symptoms are from a common cold or influenza. Only laboratory tests can confirm you have the flu. If you have had the symptoms for more than several days or are getting progressively sicker, it’s important to be see your doctor. It’s especially important for those most vulnerable to the flu to be seen soon after the onset of symptoms.
People most vulnerable to the flu:
- Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
- Adults 65 years of age and older
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum
- Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- American Indians and Alaska Natives
Those with compromising health conditions are also more vulnerable to the flu. They are also at higher risk of complications from the flu.
Health conditions that make you more susceptible to the flu:
- Chronic lung disease including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and cystic fibrosis
- Heart disease
- Diabetes and other endocrine disorders
- Kidney disorders
- Liver disorders
- Weakened immune system due to disease or medication taken for HIV, AIDS or cancer
It’s important to see a doctor to determine if you have a cold or the flu. Complications from influenza can lead to much more serious conditions including:
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Ear infections
- Sinus infections
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions like congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes
The best way to avoid the flu is to have the influenza vaccine. The vaccines are effective much of the time and are the best line of defense against the flu, especially for those who are most vulnerable.
The flu vaccine is easy to find and is offered at doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and some big box stores like Walmart. Frequently they are also available at senior centers, community organizations, clinics and city boards of health. Make sure that you and your loved one receive a flu vaccine every year. You may still get the common cold but you will avoid the life-threatening complications of influenza.
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