Sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat—classic cold, right? It's possible, but it could also be the flu.Symptoms of a cold are similar enough the flu to make diagnosis difficult. And considering both illnesses are more common during the fast-approaching winter, there's no better time to brush up on the differences.
Is It a Cold?
The common cold, medically referred to as a viral upper respiratory tract infection, can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. Rhinovirus is most active in early fall, spring, and summer, causing anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of colds. Coronavirus is usually what plagues people during the winter and early spring. RSV and parainfluenza sometimes lead to severe infections, like bronchitis or pneumonia.
Look for these symptoms:
- Aches and pains: Usually mild
- Chest discomfort, cough: Mild to moderate
- Fatigue: Sometimes occurs
- Sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat: Most common, can be severe
Is It the Flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu is caused by influenza virus types A, B, and C. Types A and B cause large seasonal outbreaks while type C usually only causes mild respiratory symptoms. Influenza becomes dangerous when it moves deep into the lungs, causing more serious issues such as breathing difficulty, pneumonia, or bronchitis.
In general, flu comes on faster and hits harder than a common cold.
- Aches and pains: Often severe
- Chest discomfort, cough: Can be severe
- Fatigue: Follows a period of exhaustion and can last two or three weeks
- Fever: Fevers with flu are common, can go over 102 degrees, and can last three or four days
- Headache: Common
- Sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat: Sometimes present
Proper Diagnosis Is Key
Timely and and accurate diagnosis of patients with respiratory illness ensures the best chance of appropriate treatment.
If all signs point to influenza, respiratory specimens for viral isolation or rapid detection should be collected and tested. There are many different tests that can help in flu diagnosis, but nasopharyngeal (NP) specimens typically have higher yield than nasal or throat swab specimens. The CDC urges that specimens be collected as soon after the onset of symptoms as possible (three or four days is ideal) to maximize the detection of illness.
Because colds usually go away before diagnostic tests can help, lab tests that detect common viral agents like rhinovirus aren't often used. It can be wise, however, to order tests for children under two years old, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems.
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