Expert Care by ER Physicians

Cold Vs Flu: When You Should See A Doctor

Posted by The Urgency Room on Friday, January 19, 2018
Updated on: Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Keywords: Common cold flu

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a common cold and influenza. Both of these illnesses can cause similar symptoms including fever, sore throat, body aches, cough and congestion. Colds and the influenza are both respiratory illnesses caused by a virus, so the location of the aches and the symptoms of both can leave people unsure of which of the two they’re suffering from. Every person has a different response and immune system, but the early stages of influenza can feel very similar to a cold.

However, influenza is a more serious illness. Influenza can cause more serious symptoms and  carries with it a longer recovering time and higher risk of complications such as trouble breathing and pneumonia. It is important for people to distinguish whether or not they have influenza, so that they can receive the appropriate treatment and take steps to ensure they don’t spread the contagious illness.

Let’s start by breaking down a common cold.

What is a Common Cold?

The term common cold gets thrown around pretty liberally, but it mostly refers to an viral infection of the upper respiratory system. The infection can be located in a variety of places within the upper respiratory system, including: nose, throat, sinuses, ears and upper airway.

There are over 200 viruses that can cause a cold, but the most common are a group of viruses called rhinoviruses. People who have a cold are contagious for up to two weeks, though the greatest risk of spreading the infection is in the first several days of illness.

Colds are very contagious and easily spread from person to person through direct contact or through airborne viral material in sneezing and coughing. Cold viruses can also spread through inanimate objects such as door knobs, telephones, and toys. In schools and daycares, colds spread quickly through inanimate objects as there are so many shared items that children touch. If a child with a cold touches her runny nose, then plays with a toy or handles a pair of scissors, some of the virus may be transferred to the toy and scissors. When another child plays with the toy or uses the scissors a short time later, he may pick up some of the virus on his hands. The second child then touches his contaminated hands to his eyes, nose, or mouth and transfers some of the cold virus to himself.

Symptoms of a Common Cold

Coming down with a cold is most likely to happen during cold season, which spans early fall and goes until spring. The changing temperatures have shown to have a correlation to contracting colds. When you do get a cold, the symptoms will show up about a day or two after you are infected with it. Symptoms for a cold include:

  • Sinus Congestion
  • Itching Eyes
  • Runny Nose
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Chest Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Slight Fever

Treatment of a Common Cold

A common cold does not require a visit to a doctor for treatment unless more severe symptoms develop. Depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing, you can treat a common cold with over-the-counter medications. Typically, medications to control fever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen and decongestants are most effective.

In addition to medication, a combination of rest and hydration are the best ways to fight off the cold virus. If you have a cold, stay home from work or school. You’re contagious, and you don’t want to get others sick.

What is Influenza?

While we often use the term ‘the flu’ to cover many illnesses, influenza is specific a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system. Influenza is quite different from the ‘stomach flu’, which is actually called viral gastroenteritis.

There are three common strains of influenza: influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C. Influenza A is the most common. Influenza viruses are constantly changing, with new sub-strains appearing regularly. If you've had influenza in the past, your body has already developed antibodies to combat that particular strain of the virus, which allows your body to fight off the virus better in a situation of future infection.

Due to the highly contagious nature of influenza, outbreaks of the virus occur both on a micro scale in smaller communities such as an office or school, and on a macro level where it infects large populations of a city, or even a country. Some of the recent large scale outbreaks in the United States were the 2009 pandemic, also referred to as the Swine Flu Outbreak, and the 2015 pandemic, known as the Bird Flu Outbreak.  

Symptoms of Influenza

Influenza viruses travel through the air in viral droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object that has be contaminated such as a telephone or computer keyboard.  

Symptoms of influenza will appear shortly after you contract the virus. Influenza shares symptoms with a common cold, but the symptoms will linger longer and will often be more intense. Symptoms include:

  • Fever- often this is a very high fever
  • Body Aches
  • Fatigue
  • Sore Throat
  • Headaches
  • Cough
  • Chills and Sweats
  • Sinus Congestion
  • Runny Nose
  • Chest Congestion
  • Vomiting

Treatment of Influenza

When you have influenza, you’re contagious for anywhere between 4-10 days. Depending on the person’s immune system, the virus can take longer to fight for some. Someone who has previously had influenza or has a strong immune system can treat the virus at home with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medications. Others may require medical attention to receive medications to combat the influenza. By visiting a doctor, you can have a test performed to determine if you have contracted influenza, and to identify which strain.

For young children and people over the age of 65, it’s recommended to seek medical attention if you have symptoms of influenza. More severe cases and complications are more common in the elderly or very young or those with chronic medical problems such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes.  Anyone with influenza and severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain or dehydration should seek medical attention urgently

Treat The Flu at The Urgency Room

If you come down with a common cold or a strain of influenza, it’s important that you seek the appropriate treatments and limit the spread of the virus. If the symptoms are severe, come and see us at The Urgency Room for quick and convenient medical care.

With convenient locations situated off of major highways running through the Twin Cities, coming to our Woodbury, Vadnais Heights or Eagan locations is an easy trip. By coming to The Urgency Room, you won’t have to sit in the waiting room as your flu symptoms worsen. Wait times at The Urgency Room are usually under 15 minutes and you can check out live waiting room times at each location here. That way you won’t be surprised upon arrival.

Loading Comments. Please Wait...

Please login to post a reply.