Should I Stay or Should I Go (to see my doc)

Ah, that familiar, scratchy feeling in the back of your throat has been nagging at you since you woke up. You try to ignore it, but as the day goes on, an afternoon cup of tea (or three) doesn't clear it up, and you know: You are coming down with "the crud."

But which bug is it, a cold or the flu? Should you call your doctor? What is going around? Both are caused by viruses and have similar symptoms but they are different enough that you should be able to make some informed decisions on how to treat your illness and whether or not you need to seek advice from your physician.

Seasonality and symptoms

In addition to symptoms, timing can also shed some light what you have contracted. For instance, colds are most common in the winter however you can get them any season throughout the year. The flu, on the other hand, has its own season that runs November through March with some run over into October and May. So, if you are sick in the summer months, you more than likely have a cold or even allergy issues.

Symptoms vary as well. Here is a chart to explain the differences:

 Symptom  Cold  Flu
 Fever  Rare  Fever ranges between 100-102 degrees that typically lasts 3-4 days
 Chills  Uncommon  Somewhat common
 Muscle or body aches  Uncommon or very mild  Common and often severe
 Headache  Uncommon  Common in most cases; sudden in some cases
 Fatigue or weakness  May occur, generally mild  Moderate to severe fatigue and weakness that can last up to 2-3 weeks
 Cough  Common; mild to moderate; phlegm producing  Dry; generally not phlegm producing; may be severe and last several weeks
 Sneezing and stuffy nose  Common; may last up to a week  Sometimes
 Sore throat  Common  Sometimes
 Chest congestion  Sometimes; generally mild  Common; may be severe


When to call your doctor

Both cold and flu symptoms can be treated effectively with over-the-counter medications and lots of rest. Keeping the fever in check is crucial and can be done by alternating between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. For muscle aches and pains, ibuprofen is recommended. The stuffy nose and respiratory symptoms can be treated with decongestants. Staying hydrated will do more than help heal your body the liquids will also soothe your throat as well. For a sore throat and cough try cough drops, hard candy, or even a teaspoon of honey in tea or water.

If the fever is severe (103 degrees or above) and does not go away in six days or other symptoms occur such as sinus pain or earache, you should call your doctor. The flu usually occurs in epidemics every three to four years (e.g. Asian flu) and the virus is constantly changing or mutating. During years when a strain is particularly aggressive, or if you have specific respiratory issues such as asthma, consult your physician earlier rather than later. The flu also comes on quick making you feel like you’ve “been hit by a freight train”. If you feel the rapid onset of symptoms and are certain you are suffering from the flu, make an appointment within the first 24-36 hours of the onset and your doctor may be able to shorten the duration of the illness with Tamiflu, a flu-specific medication. However, this treatment is not guaranteed to work. 

The truth is contracting a cold or the flu is eminent. Your best defense is to wash your hands during the peak seasons. You can also get ahead of the virus by getting a flu shot at the start of flu season, late October into November. But, all is not lost if you do catch the crud. Take time off and rest. Your body needs it. And, the bright side is that you are building up antibody defenses that will come in handy throughout the rest of the season.