Is it a Cold, the Flu, or Something Else?
’Tis the season. Your coworkers are coughing, the person in line behind you at the grocery store is sneezing, and you get to spin the roulette wheel of “What illness do I have now?”
Before you Google your symptoms and let the Internet tell you that you have a deadly illness, take a moment to learn the signs of some common winter germs. While it can often be hard to tell for sure what you have, knowing what to look out for can help you determine what treatment you need, and when you can expect to feel better.
The Common Cold
Symptoms: comes on slowly, often over the course of a few days; with cough, runny nose or nasal congestion, and a sore throat. Fever is rare.
Treatment: Your best bet is going to be rest and fluids. Over the counter medications, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, saline nasal sprays, or cold medicine, can help reduce your symptoms (but ask a doctor first if you’re not sure, especially if you have other medical conditions). Since the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t help.
When you’ll feel better: it can take 7–10 days for you to feel like your old self again.
Symptoms: you start feeling sick quickly, and can have fever, body aches, chills, tiredness, and a headache. You may also have a cough, runny nose, and sore throat, but those are less common.
Treatment: Rest and fluids. Over the counter medications can help with your symptoms (like reducing the headache). If you recognize influenza early, a doctor may be able to prescribe you antiviral medication to help you get better a little faster.
Many strains of influenza can be prevented with a flu shot, but it takes two weeks to become effective, so it’s best to get one early in the season.
When you’ll feel better: in 1–2 weeks, you should be feeling better.
If you start off with a cold, but your symptoms last longer than 10 days (or 2 weeks with the flu), and you still have a fever, cough, facial pain, runny/stuffy nose, or headaches, you could have a sinus infection.
You’ll need to get checked by a health professional to be sure, but they can prescribe antibiotics to help you get better.
Symptoms: can include nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, diarrhea, fever.
This is often called the “stomach flu,” and often occurs late in winter, but it’s not influenza. A vaccine can prevent certain type of gastroenteritis in children, but the flu shot won’t.
Gastroenteritis is caused by a virus, spread by something you touch or by close contact with sick people (as in day cares or nursing homes) or from improperly prepared food.
Treatment: Lots of fluids and rest. Antibiotics won’t help. Wash your hands frequently. If you become dehydrated or have a high fever, seek medical attention.
When you’ll feel better: Most people feel better in 1–2 days, but it can take up to 10 days to recover.
Some winter illnesses will go away with rest and fluids, especially if you’re normally healthy. But contact a medical professional if you’re not getting better, if you have difficulty breathing or a high fever, or if you have any other symptoms that concern you.