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Health expert explains differences between common cold, flu symptoms

Nov 10, 2016

Waking up with the sniffles, a cough and a fever is common this time of year. But how do you know if it’s just a common cold or the flu? Knowing the difference is important because the flu can become much more serious, says a University of Iowa Health Care expert.

“It can be difficult to tell whether you have a cold or the flu because the two can share a lot of the same symptoms,” said Patrick D. Brophy, MD, MHCDS, professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa and medical director for UIeCare. “It’s important to know the difference, because the flu can cause serious complications, especially for young children, people over age 65, and pregnant women.”

While both a cold and the flu are respiratory viruses, the severity of an illness and how it unfolds can provide clues to help tell them apart. A cold is usually mild, lasting only a few days, and causes symptoms predominately above the neck. The flu is more severe, comes on suddenly, and causes symptoms throughout the entire body.

This cold and flu season, Brophy shares some common cold and flu symptoms to help determine the difference.

• Fever. Both illnesses can cause a fever, but it’s more common with the flu. Colds may cause a low-grade fever, but fevers with the flu can be 102 degrees or more and can persist for three or four days.

• Headache. Headaches rarely accompany a cold, but are common with the flu.

• Aches and pains. Achiness is typically mild with a cold and often severe with the flu.

• Fatigue. Mild tiredness sometimes occurs with colds, but the flu usually starts with a period of exhaustion and fatigue lasting up to three weeks.

• Sneezing, stuffy nose, and sore throat. These are the most frequent symptoms of a cold, but can also occur with the flu.

• Chest discomfort and cough. These symptoms are generally mild to moderate with colds, but can be severe with the flu.

“Whether you have a cold or the flu, it’s important to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. If you feel weak, have difficulty breathing, or run a high fever, you should see a doctor,” Brophy said. “If you are unsure whether an illness requires a doctor’s visit, it is best to err on the side of caution..”

UIeCare, backed by University of Iowa Health Care, is one of Iowa’s first virtual care services, which makes it possible for Iowans to see a University of Iowa Health Care-credentialed provider via a webcam or smart phone from anywhere in Iowa at any time. The UIeCare service is for minor illnesses and injuries that are urgent but not an emergency. UIeCare providers can effectively treat flu-like symptoms, rash, sore throat, and vomiting.

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