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It’s that time of year when the world is more susceptible to hundreds of cold and flu viruses making the rounds. When symptoms start, it may be hard to know if you’re suffering from a cold or the flu.

“The flu usually hits you like a freight train,” said Dr. Justin Asbury of Novant Health Oceanside Family Medicine in Leland, North Carolina. “Flu symptoms are generally far more severe than the common cold and come on quickly.”

Symptoms such as high fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough are more common and intense with the flu. By contrast, the common cold is more likely to cause congestion above the neck, including runny or stuffy noses and sneezing. If fever is present with a cold, it’s generally very low.

“If you have to ask the difference, odds are you don’t have the flu,” Asbury said. “In some cases, people who have received a flu shot and still contract the flu may experience milder symptoms than they would have without vaccination.”

How to schedule your flu shot

Current Novant Health patients: schedule your shot with your primary care provider here.

Don’t have a primary care provider? Visit one of our walk-in clinics.

The common cold

The common cold is an upper respiratory infection known for causing sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, coughing and mild body aches.

“Green mucus doesn’t automatically mean you need antibiotics,” Asbury said. “The common cold is a virus, so antibiotics that fight bacteria will not help. Antibiotics are only needed if your illness develops into a longer-lasting bacterial infection. People should always consult with their doctor.”

Rest and over-the-counter medicine to help with symptom relief are all that’s usually needed for the common cold. Symptoms generally last seven to 10 days. See a health care provider for a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees, symptoms that last longer than 10 days or symptoms that aren’t relieved by over-the-counter medicines.

The big, bad flu

Influenza, commonly called the flu, is also caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract, but the illness is much more severe when compared to a cold. Known for its high fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, headache and respiratory symptoms, the flu is nothing to be taken lightly.

“Flu complications can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions, including congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes,” Asbury said. “If you think you may have the flu, it’s important you take steps to help your body rest and recover while not spreading the virus to others.”

Each year, hundreds of thousands of individuals are hospitalized with the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Symptoms last two weeks or longer, and people who are sick with the flu are contagious as early as a day before they exhibit symptoms.

“Vaccination for the flu is still our best line of defense,” Asbury said. “If you have the flu, and are severely ill, antiviral drugs may be a good second line of defense, especially for people who are at risk for serious flu complications.”

Antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms, shorten the length of illness by a day or two, and prevent serious complications – such as pneumonia – from developing. There are two Food and Drug Administration-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended, oseltamivir (Tamiflu by brand name) and zanamivir (brand name, Relenza). Tamiflu is offered as a pill or liquid and Relenza is an inhaled powder that’s not suitable for people with breathing issues, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Both are usually prescribed for five days, but can be taken longer as needed.

“For people with high-risk medical conditions, antiviral medications can make for a much milder case of the flu,” Asbury said. “Those at high risk for serious flu complications include people with asthma, heart disease, diabetes, chronic liver or kidney disease, morbid obesity, as well as other immunosuppressed and neurological conditions. People most at risk are those 65 or older, those younger than 5 or pregnant women.”

Practice good prevention

When it comes to any illness, prevention is key.

“Wash your hands frequently, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you’re unable to wash your hands, and disinfect frequently touched surfaces,” Asbury said. “Good infection prevention will keep you from having to wonder if you have a cold or the flu or any other illness.”

Anyone who is sick is advised to stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever breaks.