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A Cold? The Flu? Here's What to Do

It's sniffle season again.

And now that most of us are reassured that the slightest tickle in the back of the throat probably isn't anthrax, we can get back to the less-alarming task of figuring out if it's a cold or the flu. And what can be done about it.

The perennial confusion between the common cold and influenza is due to the fact that the symptoms for both are so similar -- runny nose, sore throat, fever and body aches.

For the record, colds are caused by viruses, and there are often at least 200 of them circulating during cold and flu season. But, there's typically only one influenza virus that circulates each year, health experts say.

The best ways to tell you're dealing with a cold, not the flu, are severity and duration -- colds typically last from three to seven days and generally aren't very serious.

Dr. Yeong Kwok, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Department of Internal Medicine, says the best treatment for the common cold comes right from your grandmother's book of sound advice: Get plenty of rest, drink hot liquids, eat chicken soup, gargle with warm salt water and take over-the-counter cold remedies.

"Getting rest really does make sense, because we know that stress and a lot of physical activity can depress your immune system," he says. "So if you do have an infection, it makes sense that resting and drinking lots of fluids would help your system get better and prevent coming down with an additional problem."

Kwok adds that some studies have shown that taking zinc lozenges can reduce cold symptoms from six days to three days. While the evidence isn't strong, he says it can't hurt to have a stash of zinc lozenges handy, just to give a try.

If you feel like you've got a whopper of a cold, however, with more serious and longer lasting symptoms than normal, you're probably dealing with the flu.

Cases of flu can last up to about 12 days. And although antibiotics are useless against a cold, they can be effective in treating the flu virus, Kwok says. But they're only really effective if taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms and are usually prescribed for high-risk cases.

That leaves the countless over-the-counter drugs to combat colds and the flu, but even the most potent varieties are likely to offer little more than temporary relief, says Dr. Larry Fields, a family physician and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"The over-the-counter medications act to control symptoms so you may feel better, but the course of illness is not shortened by the drugs," Fields says.

So if the treatment is typically the same for the cold and flu, why is it important to know whether you've got one or the other?

Because the flu has much greater potential to lead to pneumonia in certain high-risk people, Kwok says. Those people include the elderly, those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or chronic bronchitis, and those with auto-immune deficiencies.

Pneumonia should be suspected if flu symptoms suddenly worsen, if a fever suddenly spikes higher, or someone experiences shortness of breath.

A health-care provider should be called immediately if such symptoms develop.

"It's very rare for someone to die from a cold, but the flu and complications from the flu are estimated to cause about 20,000 deaths per year in the United States. So that's why there's more concern about the flu," says Kwok.

The best way to protect against the flu and pneumonia is to get a flu shot. Although anyone can get one, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the vaccine for people over 50, those in the high-risk groups, women who will be at least three months pregnant during flu season and those with compromised auto-immune systems.

"Anyone who is in a high-risk group, regardless of their age, should consider having the vaccine. And anyone who just doesn't want to get the flu should also think about the flu vaccine," says Kwok.

To further cut your risk of colds and flu, there's always good old hand washing, says Fields.

"Regularly washing your hands is highly important whether you have a cold or are trying to avoid getting one," he says. "If you're the infected person, you also need to make sure to cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze so that you're not spreading it that way."

The CDC says an estimated 62 million people develop colds in the United States annually, and as many as 95 million get the flu.

Peak months for flu outbreaks in the United States are November through April. During the past 19 flu seasons, the month of February has had the heaviest flu activity, followed by January, December and March.

What to Do: To learn more about the flu, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For more information on pneumonia, visit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


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