The cold and flu are commonly confused for one another, but the symptoms that occur can actually be quite different. How can you tell the difference between the two?

Cold Symptoms: Sore throat, stuffy nose, runny nose, sneezing, mild fever (100°F), cough, moderate to severe fatigue

Flu Symptoms: Muscle or body aches, fever (higher than 100°F), sore throat, cough, moderate to severe fatigue

What should I do if I think I have a cold or the flu?

If you think that you might have a cold or the flu, make sure to:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your arm, not your hands
  • Consider using a face mask to keep from spreading the virus to others
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Get plenty of rest

How can I treat my cold or flu symptoms?

Treatment for both conditions is based on the symptoms you have and most often can be treated using over the counter medications. Since many of these products are marketed for both cold and flu, it is very important to look at the ingredients and talk to your pharmacist to make sure you are treating the correct symptoms.

Other health conditions and medications may affect your options to tackle the symptoms of cold and flu; ask your pharmacist for help to find the best option for you.

Symptom Treatment

  • Runny nose: antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or saline nasal spray
  • Congestion: decongestant like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or saline nasal spray
  • Cough:
    • If mucus is present (productive cough), try guaifenesin (Mucinex) and/or plenty of fluids to help thin the mucus to make it easier to clear
    • If no mucus is present (dry cough), try dextromethorphan (Delsym) or cough drops to alleviate the urge to cough
  • Sore throat: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin), and cough drops/sprays. Sore throat and nasal congestion may also be improved by using a humidifier.
  • Fever: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin) are both good choices to bring temperature down
  • Muscle/body aches: acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin) are also both good pain relievers and can alleviate muscle pain from the flu

Avoid multiple products without getting advice from your pharmacist as products may have similar ingredients.

Should I get the flu shot?

Yes! The flu shot is recommended for everyone older than 6 months in order to reduce the risk of catching the flu. It takes about two weeks for your body to build up immunity after getting a flu shot, so it is important to get your flu shot as soon as possible.

However, it is important to remember that the flu shot will not prevent you from catching a cold, since these sicknesses are caused by two different viruses.

Isn’t there a prescription medication for the flu?

Yes, there is! If flu symptoms are caught within 48 hours of starting, a prescription for an anti-viral medicine (such as oseltamivir or Tamiflu) may be started in order to reduce the amount of sick days.

It is important to remember that prescription options for the flu are only effective if started within the first 48 hours of illness. Starting an anti-viral medication if you’ve had symptoms after that usually won’t help you recover any faster or make your symptoms any better.

What if the symptoms do not go away?

Most people who have symptoms of either the cold or flu will start to feel better in about one to two weeks. If your symptoms stick around or get worse, be sure to follow up with a physician.

Information prepared by Alexander Proux, Pharm.D.

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