Colds and flu 101: Cutting through the mystery can help ease your misery
Is it the flu or just a cold? Knowing the difference can help you decide when to stay home and when to see a doctor. Illustration by Troy Becker / The Forum
Receiving a flu shot
You might call it the bus test.
For those who have trouble distinguishing the misery of a cold from the misery of the flu, Dr. Dan Dahl offers a few words of help.
A bout of influenza announces itself with "an abrupt onset of fevers, cough, running nose and myalgia" - pain or tenderness in muscles - "leaving people feeling like they got hit by a bus."
A cold, by contrast, comes on more gradually.
Emalee Muhonen, an infection prevention nurse at Essentia Health, adds that a case of the flu is more severe and relentless than a cold.
"The symptoms are more intense," she says. "They stay longer. You wouldn't be able to 'kick it.' The cold you can get over."
People with the flu should seek treatment, if they are able to get out of bed.
Take note: Anti-viral medication can help decrease the severity and intensity of influenza but must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, says Dahl, a family practice physician at Sanford Health.
"After 48 hours, those medicines don't really affect the course," he adds.
The best way to fight the flu, however, is to get vaccinated. There's still time.
Flu season starts in October and runs through May, but typically reaches a peak in this area around January and February.
People shouldn't be discouraged by recent news reports about a study suggesting that the flu shot is less effective in preventing the flu than previously thought. Even the study's authors stress that the flu shot remains the best preventive weapon.
"The seasonal flu vaccine, combined with good hygiene practices like frequent hand washing and covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, can go a long way toward preventing the flu," says Dr. Timothy Burke, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia Health.
This year's flu vaccine is formulated to guard against both major strains of flu, as well as swine flu.
Just about everyone - all but infants younger than six months - should be vaccinated against the flu, health experts advise.
Because infants can't be vaccinated, parents and other family members in the household should take the vaccine to protect the infant, Dahl said.
Nasal spray flu vaccine, an alternative to a shot, actually appears to work better for children ages 2 to 7, a study has shown. Those 49 or older, have asthma, or a weakened immune system should have a shot instead of the spray, Muhonen says.
For the flu vaccine to really be effective, a large portion of the population should be vaccinated - a condition epidemiologists sometimes call "herd immunity."
Even those with strong immune systems can spread the flu, Dahl says.
"It's a public health concern," he says. "You can still shed the virus and pass it on to other people."
Unfortunately, Muhonen says, many people don't take influenza seriously enough and don't bother getting vaccinated.
"People haven't seen the drastic effects of smallpox and measles," she says. "I think anybody who's ever had influenza gets a flu shot when you see how awful it is to have those symptoms."
The flu, by the way, has nothing to do with stomach ache or nausea, Dahl and Muhonen note.
But those stomach bugs shouldn't be ignored if vomiting or diarrhea persist. "If you're not able to keep fluids in, you should definitely go in to the clinic," Muhonen says.
Meanwhile, the advice for avoiding cold and flu might not sound dazzling, but they help, she adds. Those infected with a flu virus can shed the germs 24 hours before symptoms show up.
"Truly your best bet," Muhonen says, "is to wash your hands and get your flu shot."
Cold and flu guidelines
If you or your child are coming down with cold or flu symptoms, the question arises: Should I stay home or not?
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
If the temperature is more than 100 degrees - 98.6 degrees is considered normal - keep your child home from school or day care. Stay at home until the fever subsides.
"Outside of that, I think the thing is how much energy does the child have" says Dr. Dan Dahl, a family medicine physician at Sanford Health.
Get infants to the clinic if they have a persistent fever, are unable to eat, have trouble breathing, or have fewer wet diapers or no tears - symptoms that could mean the child is dehydrated, says Emalee Muhonen, infection prevention nurse at Essentia Health.
Be sure to practice good hygiene and etiquette, and instruct your child to cough or sneeze into a tissue or sleeve and to wash hands frequently.
Be sure to use soap and warm water and scrub vigorously when washing hands. If washing isn't an option, use an alcohol hand sanitizer.
Remember to avoid rubbing their eyes, and keep your hands away from your nose or mouth. Remind your kids to do the same.
If a family member is sick, try to keep that person in a room separate from others. Clean hard surfaces with a disinfectant or use a solution that is one part bleach, 10 parts water. Use a hot drier setting for laundry.
Push fluids for either a cold or flu.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522