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Health Mystery Solved: How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

Photo credit: Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

Photo credit: Getty Images/Paul Bradbury

It starts with a sneeze, a runny nose, a few steady coughs. Then, after a tissue box is emptied, you finally realize you’re dealing with something more serious than a case of the sniffles.

But is it a cold or the flu? While both have similar symptoms and are both considered respiratory illnesses, they are actually caused by different viruses. That’s why your treatment tactics need to target the correct culprit. Dr. Keith Herzog, MD, attending physician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children is here to help you get to the bottom of the cold case:

It might be a cold if:

Feeling feverish? If you (or your child) feel warm, take their temperature for an exact reading. A cold may cause a low-grade fever around 100 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit. While fever itself is not harmful (it’s actually your body’s way of combating infection), it is often uncomfortable and accompanied by “the chills.” If your fever is causing discomfort, treat it by staying hydrated and using acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce the fever. Some multi-ingredient cold medicines may already contain one of these ingredients, so it’s important to check the labels to ensure you’re not getting an extra dose of medicine that might not be needed.

A runny nose is another common sign of a cold. Try a saline spray or drops to dilute the mucus and get things moving again. As an option for younger children, consider a nasal syringe. Look for one with a broad, bulb tip that allows a seal at the front of the nose without irritating their tiny nose.

A minor cough and a scratchy throat are exhausting to deal with when you’re already feeling congested. If you’re dealing with a cold-related cough and scratchy throat, try honey. Found in many kitchen cabinets, honey has an ability to help ease coughs naturally. However, honey should not be given to children under 1 year of age. Honey can contain spore of bacterium that may be harmful to an immature digestive system.

It might be the flu if….

When you experience a higher fever, more severe sore throat, scratchy cough, headache and particularly severe muscle aches, you (or your child) are likely experiencing influenza, or “the flu”.

The flu typically causes a higher fever (102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit). Stay in bed and treat any associated discomfort with a fever-reducing medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Once your body temperature returns to normal, most doctors advise you wait an additional 24 hours before heading back out into the world to ensure you’re not spreading potential flu germs.

The flu is commonly seen in colder months, from December to February. But regardless of the time of year, you may want to look into a cool mist humidifier. Since indoor warmed air is usually very dry, it can cause dried secretions in the airway (a stuffy nose) and make it difficult for your body to dislodge germs from your airway.

Be sure you and your kids drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Any nutritional liquid your child will drink is good, as it can help replace lost fluids and loosen mucus. Hand washing or using hand sanitizer is especially important this time of year. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, in particular, is a great option because it is portable, quick drying and simple to use on the go.

If there are any symptoms outside of a fever, congestion, aches or pain—especially any difficulty breathing—contact your child’s pediatrician for appropriate medications and treatment.

For more information visit St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.