Ahhhhh-chooo! ‘Tis the season for a sneezin’. Adults catch an average of two to three colds per year,1 and kids get them even more often—up to six or eight a year.2 And about 8% of us in the U.S. will get sick from the flu each season.3
The common cold and the flu have many of the same symptoms—from congestion and sore throat to headache and tiredness. When you’re feeling terrible, you just want to know what you’ve got and if there’s anything you can do to find some relief. For the flu, especially, it helps to ID the illness early and have a doctor on hand in case complications come into play.
So which sickness do you have, or could it be something else entirely? If your symptoms have you on the struggle bus, let our guide help you identify your illness, and provide tips to cope.
So which virus is it?
Did you know both the common cold and influenza are viruses? While they are different viruses, they both affect the respiratory system and are spread through droplets in the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or blows his nose. These virus droplets often land—and stay alive—on objects we touch, contributing to the fast spread of sickness this time of year.
Stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, fatigue, and headache can bother sufferers of both the cold and flu viruses, but flu symptoms are more severe. Flu also usually brings with it fever above 101 degrees, chills, and body aches—ouch. Flu symptoms tend to come on in a quick and intense way, lasting a few days or more. The flu can also bring complications, like dehydration, that may require a physician consult.
Colds, usually caused by rhinoviruses, start gradually and last seven to 10 days. Since symptoms are less severe, sufferers usually find they are able to go to school or work, especially after the initial wave—those first two or three days the cold hits and you are contagious. The flu, on the other hand, can leave you bedridden for the duration of the illness.
So what’s a sick person to do?
If you or your child has a cold virus, make resting—especially sleep—a priority so the body can use its energy to fight infection. Drink plenty of clear liquids, and use a humidifier to make the air moist and easier to breathe. Saline spray can soothe a sore nose, while a warm washcloth or compress on the face can relieve sensitive sinuses.
In terms of medicine, you have some options—but here’s a word of advice from Dr. Derek Bennetsen, senior medical director for Teladoc Health. “It is important to understand that antibiotics cannot kill viruses and are not effective against viral infections. Taking them unnecessarily can be harmful,” he cautions.
Over-the-counter decongestants or pain relievers could help, but check in with a physician—Teladoc’s experts are available 24/7—about what may be the best fit for the symptoms. “A doctor is your best guide to understanding whether you should take a medication,” Dr. Bennetsen says.
The same would go for flu medications: Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or decongestants may help with discomfort. If the virus is caught early enough, a prescription flu antiviral drug may help. There are four of these medications available,4 so talk with a doctor about which could be a fit for you.
Since the flu leaves you feeling crummy, rest should be an easy prescription. Dehydration is the biggest concern for flu sufferers—so drink often, mixing in water, other clear liquids and broths, popsicles, and ice chips. If your fever is high and bothersome, take a lukewarm bath or put cool washcloths on the skin to lower the body’s temperature. Try to stay away from others to avoid passing the virus along. Use tissues, and wash or sanitize hands and surfaces often and thoroughly.
What can I do to prevent this?
Unfortunately, cold and flu viruses are part of life, and there’s no simple cure. For the flu, get your annual vaccine by the time fall begins. Talk to a doctor about whether you are at high risk of complications, and how you can be prepared if illness strikes.
Hand hygiene is really your best defense against any common illness this time of year. Wash hands with soap and warm water frequently—especially after being in public places and before eating. Keep sanitizer with you when you’re on the go, and try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Cough into your sleeve if you don’t have tissues on hand. Be aware of spreading germs so you—and others—can stay healthy this cold and flu season.
To prep for potential invaders this fall and winter, connect with Teladoc now. When you need to meet with one of our U.S. board-certified doctors, they’re available 24/7 to help you navigate symptoms from the comfort of your home. If complications arise, you’ll be armed with a support team of specialists that always has your best interests in mind.
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