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Cold vs Flu: Know the Differences

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young woman sneezing into a tissue

It’s the time of year when many people get sick, often with a cold or the flu. Both are caused by viruses, and often share some similar symptoms. However, there are subtle differences, listed below.

1. Symptoms

Cold viruses primarily affect a person’s upper respiratory system instead of the entire body. Symptoms include nasal congestion, cough, sneezing, and sore throat. These symptoms may also be present with those that have the flu, but are less common. According to Avera Medical Group Lakes Family Practice physician Bradley Meyer, DO, flu symptoms, on the other hand, “affect the entire body and usually also include a fever, body aches, chills, headache, fatigue, and weakness.”

2. Onset

A cold usually starts out with sneezing or a slightly sore throat and gradually worsens over a few days. Flu symptoms tend to appear quickly, almost abruptly.

3. Duration

Meyer said both the flu and a cold can last about the same time, but colds usually last longer, about seven to 10 days. He said, “The flu usually lasts three to seven days, although the cough and fatigue can last up to two weeks.”

4. Complications

Getting a cold is a common occurrence, mainly due to the number of cold viruses that exist, which Meyer said is in the hundreds of thousands. The good news is that most colds resolve themselves and rarely result in something serious. He said, “The flu, however, can result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalization.”

5. Treatment

The best way to recover from a cold or the flu is to rest. Recovering from a cold takes time, drinking lots of fluids, and taking a pain medication such as ibuprofen or Tylenol. The best way to recover from the flu is to rest, stay home, and take an anti-viral medication in the first 24 to 48 hours of symptoms onset. Meyer said, “Anti-viral medications can lessen the flu’s symptoms, shorten its duration, and prevent serious complications from occurring.”

Those with questions or interested in seeing a provider can call Lakes Family Practice at 712-336-3750 or Spirit Lake Medical Center at 712-336-2410.


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