Colds and flu are respiratory illnesses and share similar symptoms; however, there are important differences. Flu symptoms typically develop suddenly compared to cold symptoms that tend to develop gradually. Fever, muscle aches, chills, and extreme fatigue and weakness are common with the flu. Sneezing, sore throat, and a stuffy nose are more common with a cold. The best way to determine if you have the flu is to have an MD Now provider administer a flu test as soon as possible after you develop symptoms.
It is possible to be contagious up to two days before the onset of symptoms and for approximately three days after becoming ill.
It is possible to spread the flu virus to others up to a day before you even notice symptoms and for up to a week after the onset of symptoms. If possible, you should avoid going to work, school, or crowded public places during this time to limit the possibility of infecting others.
The two types of flu responsible for annual flu epidemics are type A and type B. Type A flu is generally responsible for large epidemics. The type A virus is constantly mutating, which is why it is important to get the flu vaccine each year to ensure that you are protected against the current version of the virus. Type B flu is generally less severe than type A and normally does not cause widespread pandemics. A third type, known as type C, is less common and normally much milder than types A or B.
The flu virus can enter the body through the mucous membranes of the eyes, mouth, or nose. If you shake hands with someone who is sick or touch an object that is contaminated with the virus and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can infect yourself. The virus can also be spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. The best way to avoid becoming sick is to get the annual flu vaccine, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and keep your distance from those who are sick as much as possible.
In most cases, the best flu treatment is getting plenty of rest and fluids. Individuals who are at high risk for complications, including the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with asthma and other chronic health conditions, should see a doctor as soon as possible if they develop flu symptoms. Antiviral flu medicine is available that can lessen the duration and severity of symptoms and reduce the likelihood of complications. To be effective, a flu medicine, such as oseltamivir or baloxavir, must be administered within a day or two of the onset of symptoms.
Colds typically resolve without medical intervention within a week to 10 days. The best treatment is rest and plenty of fluids. You can use over-the-counter remedies to help alleviate a troublesome cough, congestion, or runny nose.
Antibiotics are only effective in treating bacterial infections. Both the flu and the common cold are viral infections, so they do not respond to antibiotics.
The CDC recommends the annual flu vaccine for everyone six months of age and older. There are a number of different flu vaccine options available, and an MD NOW provider can help you choose the vaccine that is best for you. In general, the only people who should not get vaccinated are children who are too young for the shot and those who have severe allergies to the vaccine or any of its ingredients.
The timing and duration of flu season can vary from community to community, but most areas start to see an increase in flu activity starting in October. Flu activity normally peaks between December and February. It is possible, however, for cases to occur as late as May. It does take approximately two weeks for your body to produce antibodies in response to the vaccine, so the best time to get vaccinated is before it becomes widespread in your community.
The CDC recommends getting the vaccine by the end of October; however, getting the vaccine later can still offer you some protection and is better than not getting it at all.
If you experience cold or flu-like symptoms but are unsure whether you need medication, visit your nearest MD Now clinic.
The content provided on the MD Now website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for receiving medical care and treatment from a qualified healthcare provider. Never delay seeking advice, evaluation, and treatment from a medical professional because of what you’ve read on this site, since the information provided may not apply to you or your symptoms.