Flu, cold or bad cough; how to tell the difference

By Chennell Ramos - Digital Journalist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.

Gary Roberts of Roberts South Bank Pharmacy states that, “The most important thing to do is hydrate yourself, the most important thing to do.”

The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems.

The flu (influenza) is reaching epidemic proportions.

 There is only one FDA-approved medication indicated for treatment of the flu – Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate).

Roberts highly recommends that “If you feel the onset of the flu symptoms, “get tested for the flu, Tamiflu has to be administered within the 48 hours of the initial onset of the symptoms.”

Besides Tamiflu, all you can do is treat the symptoms associated with the flu making sure to stay hydrated.  There are many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines available at your local pharmacy.  But with so many options, how do you choose?  Look for the medicines that treat your specific symptoms. 

Stuffy nose: Look for decongestants that contain phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine. Decongestants help a stuffy nose by shrinking swollen nasal passages that cause congestion. You can also try decongestant nose drops or sprays, but you should not use these products for more than 3 days. Saline (salt water) nose sprays or rinses can also help relieve congestion and break up mucus. These sprays are safe to use as often as you want.  The newer corticosteroid nasal sprays like Flonase can be used, but are best for runny nose and sneezing due to allergies.

Headache or body aches, Fever: Choose a pain reliever that contains acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. These drugs can interact with other medicines you are taking or may cause problems with certain conditions.  If you take one of these, look at any other medicines you're taking to make sure they don't contain the same drug. Many cold and flu treatments have the same ingredients.  For fever, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen can reduce fever, which may help you feel better.  Alternating doses between acetaminophen and ibuprofen or naproxen is effective.

Cough: There are two types of over-the-counter cough medicines: expectorants and cough suppressants. Expectorants, like guaifenesin, help thin mucus so you can cough it up more easily. Cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, help control cough. You can buy these medicines separately or combined. Ask your doctor or pharmacist which is best for your cough. Cough drops and throat lozenges may also reduce your urge to cough (includes chest rubs).

Sore throat : Use throat lozenges or cough drops to soothe your sore throat. Or try a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.

Don’t give over-the-counter cold and flu medicines to children under 4. For children ages 4-6, only give them if a doctor recommends it. Read the label so you can match the symptoms to the right medicine. Make sure you’re using the right medicine and the right dose for your child’s age and weight.

When to See a Doctor

You don't need medical care for the average cough or sore throat. You often just need to give your body time to recover. Most are caused by viruses, which antibiotics can’t treat.  However, some coughs and sore throats do need help from a doctor. You could be dealing with something more serious. If you take care of yourself, you'll most likely feel better within a week to 10 days. Roberts says "Influenza is a highly communicable disease,” if your symptoms are severe, get worse, or don’t improve after 7 days, call your doctor.







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