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Winter is here—and with it, colds and flu run rampant. Everyone gets sick from time to time, and it can be difficult to decide when to see a doctor for a routine illness. If you head to urgent care and your illness turns out to be nothing more than a cold, you’ll be sent home with instructions to rest and take lots of fluids, and you’ll end up getting billed (and traveling to the doctor’s office) for nothing. However, some illnesses are more serious than others, especially if you’re older. While colds rarely develop into something more, the flu can strike (yes, even after a flu shot) and become very dangerous. You may want to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you have the flu. Here’s how to spot some differences between a cold and flu, and how to look for symptoms that should make you pick up the phone and call your physician.
Colds vs. Flu: What’s the Difference?
Cold and flu symptoms are caused by viruses. Many of the standard cold symptoms can appear with the flu, but generally with increased severity. If you’re noticing congestion, sore throat, cough, and fatigue, these are standard cold symptoms that typically go away if treated at home. Flu symptoms are more likely to include high fever, aches and pains, and tend to be worse than normal cold symptoms. Flu is less likely to be associated with respiratory symptoms, but it does happen sometimes.
When to Treat at Home and When to Schedule an Appointment
As you probably already know, most routine illnesses will resolve themselves fairly quickly if you get plenty of rest and fluids. You generally don’t have to seek medical attention unless you notice:
- High fever (102 degrees or over for adults)
- Severe vomiting/trouble keeping fluids down
- Trouble breathing
- Chest and stomach pain
- Symptoms that drag on or come back (especially cough)
- Painful swallowing or severe sore throat
- White patches on the back of the throat (sign of strep or other viral infection)
Getting over a cold or flu fully can take up to two weeks or so. However, if your symptoms aren’t improving, or they keep coming back, it may be time to talk to a doctor. Normal cold symptoms can turn into problems like bronchitis, sinus infection, and pneumonia if left untreated, so it’s important to keep an eye on symptoms before they become a major problem. Your doctor will be able to diagnose the problem and provide you with treatment.
Not sure if you have a cold or the flu? Still wondering if you should pay your doctor a visit?
Bottom line, if you feel like going to the doctor, go. If it’s nothing serious, the visit will help put your mind at ease, and you’ll at least know what is going on with you. Determining whether it’s cold or flu can be difficult at home, but your healthcare provider can bridge the gap and help you get well sooner. If it does turn out to be a nasty case of the flu—or some other viral infection, you can get treatment before the infection gets worse. Don’t underestimate the problems these everyday illnesses can cause, especially in winter—and don’t drag your feet if you need to see a doctor.