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Ask The Expert: Is it a Cold or the Flu?

January 13, 2020

Dr. Jeffery Feldman, an Atlantic Medical Group physician who also sees patients online through Atlantic Health’s Virtual Visit telehealth service, explains the difference between a cold and the flu, and when to seek medical attention.

When you begin to feel sick, more than likely your focused on doing what it takes to make you feel better, instead of pin-pointing the precise reason or diagnosis of what’s making you sick. This is especially true if it’s difficult to tell. Yet, it’s important to know if what you’re experiencing is a common cold or more serious influenza so that you can be correctly treated. Follow this guide to understand your symptoms.

What causes a cold or flu?

Since many cold and flu symptoms are the same, it’s important to know the difference between the two to be able to treat them effectively and avoid them from developing into more serious and possibly chronic conditions.

The common cold

The common cold is a type of viral infection that affects the respiratory system – nose, mouth, sinuses, and lungs. Colds usually last about a week to 10 days, depending on the person and their overall health. The Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) states in many cases, the body fights to eliminate the infection without ever needing medical
treatment.

One reason that a cold virus is successful at spreading among people is that an infected person is most contagious the day before they begin feeling symptoms. To prevent catching a cold, be vigilant about washing your hands, not touching your face, and avoid places where the virus may lurk. The cold virus can live outside the body for a few hours, which means that a person may pass a cold on to others by sharing glasses, plates, or touching surfaces. A cold is spread from one person to another through droplets or vapor when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or blows their nose. Mucus and saliva pass through the airways of another person, and the infection starts there.

The flu 

The flu, like a common cold, is a respiratory illness that is difficult to tell apart by the symptoms. Although there is a flu season, which ranges from October to mid-May people can catch the flu all year round, again, making it easier to mistake for a cold. Unlike a common cold, the flu causes several deaths each year. The seriousness of the flu is why it’s essential to know the difference between the two, so you can visit a doctor who can prescribe medication if needed.

The flu spreads in the same way that a cold spreads, through contagious people sharing objects that have been infected by mucus and saliva. If you suspect that may have the flu or exposed to someone who has, it’s important to be aware of the symptom. There are ways to avoid getting the flu, one being a flu shot. According to the CDC. “While vaccine effectiveness (VE) can vary, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.”

Still not sure if it's a cold or flu?

Patients who are experiencing severe symptoms or are considered high risk should consider a visit to the ER, an urgent care center or their primary care doctor when appropriate. If your symptoms are mild, you may opt to stay in the comfort of your home and have a visit with a board-certified doctor through Atlantic Health’s Virtual Visit telehealth service. A Virtual Visit consult offers 24/7 access to a medical professional via phone or secure video using a phone, smartphone or PC. If the physician determines you need a prescription for an antiviral medication or other drug, an order can be electronically sent to your pharmacy in moments.

 Learn more or register for Atlantic Health Virtual Visit.