Cold vs. Flu: Know the Difference
A Comprehensive Guide to the Flu
A Comprehensive Guide to the Flu
You’re feeling awful. You have fever not responding to over the counter medications with body aches, sweats, and chills. Cough is getting worse and has trouble sleeping. You have lost your appetite and feeling nauseous. Could it be the flu? Could it be something even worse?
What is the Flu?
Influenza, or the flu, refers to a group of viruses with different subtypes: A, B or C. Influenza A and B are the dominant circulating viruses causing the seasonal influenza epidemics with subtype C causing mild symptoms and not contributing to the seasonal epidemics. With over 9 million cases a year in the U.S. alone, many people suffer from the illness at least once a year. Since the flu is a contagious respiratory illness with transmission occurring via respiratory droplets and fomites, there is a chance of death for individuals who are immunocompromised, which is why it is essential to know when you should seek medical attention.
Is the Flu a Virus or Bacteria?
Influenza is a virus with several subtypes. Antibiotics will not help to fight the flu as it’s not bacteria.
What are the Symptoms of the Flu?
Signs of the flu in adults include:
- Sore throat
- Runny Nose
- Muscle or body aches
Fever and cold sweats are common, but not universal. Children may experience nausea or diarrhea.
Flu can be mistaken for a severe cold or for other respiratory viruses, which your doctor may call “flu-like” viruses. Flu symptoms, however, are always more severe than those of a simple cold.
What is the Difference Between the Flu and a Cold?
Cold symptoms tend to be milder. However, a cold is more likely to give you a runny or stuffy nose. A flu test can be performed at an urgent care facility, emergency room, or doctor’s office. Diagnosis of influenza is important as medications are most effective when given early in disease course. Preferred testing for influenza is nasopharyngeal specimen including nasal or throat swab and nasal wash. Tests are easy to perform with results available in less than 15 minutes for some tests.
What are the Different Types of Flu?
The flu consists of different subtypes and variations. There are different types of influenza – A, B, C that infect humans. The annual “flu season” is caused by a strain of A or B. Influenza C is a much milder illness and less contagious not contributing to the epidemic. Most likely, if you have influenza C, you will think you have a cold.
The viruses are further divided into strains. Genetic mutations play a role in variations of the different subtypes and the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. When the annual flu vaccine is put together, epidemiologists make an educated guess as to which strains people need the most protection from during that season. The flu vaccine generally protects from four strains. A “bad flu year” is often caused when the pattern of strains is not what was predicted.
What’s with “swine” flu and “bird” flu?
Influenza viruses are known to jump the species barrier occasionally. The worst flu pandemics are generally caused by strains that jump from another species. For example, H1N1 in 2009 caused the “swine flu” epidemic by jumping from pigs to humans. It then outcompeted the existing H1N1 strain in humans. The issue with new strains is that nobody has resistance to them. The flu virus is more likely to jump from individual species to others, especially from pigs or birds to humans. The reverse can also happen, with human strains jumping to pets or livestock. There was a pandemic of dog flu in the Carolinas a few years ago that was, in fact, a strain of equine influenza.
How Long Does the Flu Last?
Generally, flu can last from one to two weeks depending on the complications and medication course
Can You Get the Flu from the Flu Shot?
You cannot get the flu from the flu shot. Some people may have an allergic reaction to the vaccine. Different vaccinations are also available for individuals with egg allergies. Furthermore, the flu shot takes about two weeks to become effective with the possibility of getting the flu in that timeframe
How to Treat the Flu?
Influenza is mostly treated symptomatically. That is, you take medicine to reduce your symptoms and help you rest. Prevention is considered vital, and flu shots are recommended for most people. Influenza treatment and prevention focus on the following. Antiviral therapy is essential for immunocompromised individuals and must be detected early to be effective.
If you have been tested positive for the flu, a doctor may prescribe antivirals. Antivirals lessen symptoms and can shorten the time you stay sick if given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. New developments in antiviral therapy have improved the symptomatic relief of influenza. Novel medications may relieve symptoms within 24 hours if given within 48 hours of the symptoms. They can also reduce your risk of complications. There are many antiviral medications, and which one you are prescribed depends on your circumstances. For example, zanamivir is administered by inhaler, and thus not recommended for people with asthma or COPD. Some antivirals are contraindicated while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Antivirals are generally only given to people who are at high risk of complications, or who are incredibly sick and may have to be hospitalized. As a note, antibiotics do not help with the flu and can increase your risk of getting a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are prescribed if you have a bacterial infection.
There are over-the-counter remedies for common respiratory flu symptoms. These might include antihistamines for a runny nose, decongestants for a cough, pain relievers, etc. Flu sweating may require an anti-fever medication.
Speak to a doctor about any over-the-counter remedies you decide to take, especially if you take more than one or with prescription medication.
In addition to rest, there are some home remedies that can help mitigate flu symptoms:
- Saltwater gargles are suitable for a sore throat.
- You need to get plenty of fluids, especially if you have a fever or are experiencing stomach symptoms. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Coconut water is ideal for hydration. Fresh juice or vegetable juice can also be helpful.
- Consider herbal tea sweetened with honey. Good teas for the flu include elderberry, lemon, echinacea, chamomile, and peppermint. Bear in mind that chamomile is not recommended if you are pregnant, and echinacea, which boosts your immune system, may interact with certain medications. Honey is a natural cough suppressant.
- Drink soup. Chicken soup has been demonstrated to help with symptoms, although it might just be the boosting effect of remembering your mother making it for you. Beef bone broth is also a good one.
- Steam eases nasal congestion and sore throats. Take a hot shower, use a humidifer steam vaporizer, or fill a bowl with warm water and hold your head over it for a few minutes. Drape a towel over your head to help focus the steam. Some people like to add a bit of peppermint or eucalyptus oil.
- Don’t smoke, as it will only add to the irritation to your nose, throat, and lungs. If you have a family member who smokes, make them smoke outside until you feel better.
- Suck Zinc lozenges and sprays can be used to alleviate throat pain. The lozenge will help your sore throat, and zinc is an essential nutrient your immune system needs. Some people take a zinc supplement all winter.
You should get your flu shot in late September or early October. Some people get it sooner, but be aware that if you get your flu shot in August, it may wear off by February. The CDC now recommends flu shots for everyone six months and older, with rare exceptions. In most cases, people with an egg allergy can still get the shot. If your egg allergy is more severe, then you may have to get it in the doctor’s office. If you have a life-threatening egg allergy, there are now vaccines that are made without using eggs that you can get.
Individuals who are immunocompromised or have several comorbidities are at greater risk of developing life-threatening complications with influenza.
High Risk Individuals and comorbidities include
- Children aged six months – 4 years
- Adults over 50 years and older
- Immunocompromised individuals including people with HIV
- Chronic pulmonary disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurologic disease
- Metabolic disorder including diabetes
- Pregnant women
- Residents of nursing homes
- Individuals who spend a lot of time with those on that list
Furthermore, childcare and healthcare workers have a particular need for vaccination. Influenza prevention focuses on vaccination. Individuals who are exposed to the public in day to day activities or work during the flu season are more prone to be exposed and catch influenza.
Complications of the Flu
In some individuals, the flu can lead to complications. These include viral or bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, ear infections, worsening of asthma or COPD, and the development of sinus infections. Children are particularly prone to the latter, while older people are at more risk of pneumonia. Rarer side effects include heart problems, muscle inflammation, and central nervous system problems. The flu can also aggravate the symptoms of congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
You should see a doctor if you are pregnant or just gave birth, are over 65 years, have a chronic medical condition, a weakened immune system, or if your symptoms are severe. A good option for medical care when suffering from the flu is to go to urgent care. It is less expensive than an emergency room, waiting time can be shorter, and you can call for an appointment. The doctors at an urgent care facility can test for the flu rapidly, assess your symptoms, and make a decision on what treatment(s) will help you.
Prevention is critical. Keep yourself healthy and safe by getting the flu shot every year. If you do contract influenza, turn to the friendly, experienced staff at Reliant Urgent Care.
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