Hope & Healing: The UF Health Blog

Cold and flu season is coming: What do your symptoms mean?

Almost 20% of Americans contract the flu every year, and adults average two to four colds per year— with so many viruses making the rounds, it’s important to understand the most common symptoms and what they mean. From a runny nose to full-body aches, our cold and flu guide will help you understand your symptoms and how to treat them.

Runny Nose

A runny nose is an inflammation of nasal tissues and can be caused by dozens of irritants. A runny nose could be the result of allergies or could be something more.

Do you have allergies? If you have allergies and no additional symptoms, there may something in your environment triggering an allergic reaction. A runny nose with no other symptoms could be an undiagnosed allergy problem; make an appointment with your primary care provider for testing.

Do you have other symptoms? If your runny nose is accompanied by other symptoms like fever or cough, you may have a cold or the flu. Mucus that results from a cold will often be thicker than during the flu and is often yellow or green.

Cough

A cough is your body’s way of keeping your throat and airways clear. While coughing occasionally is healthy and normal, a persistent cough is not only irritating it could mean your body is trying to tell you something.

Listen to your cough. Does it hurt when you cough? Are you coughing occasionally? Do you have mucus along with the cough? Pay attention to how your cough sounds, and look for signs like wheezing, pain or shortness of breath. Difficulty breathing is considered an emergency; dial 9-1-1 to get help right away.

Is it the flu or a cold? Coughing with a cold or the flu is mild and typically lasts less than three weeks. Because coughing could signal a more serious medical problem, especially in children, parents are encouraged to watch carefully for additional symptoms that may not be included on this list.

If your cough has lasted longer than eight weeks, call your primary care physician.

Fever

A fever is a response to a disease or illness — your body’s way of telling you something is out of the ordinary. Your fever should only last a few days, and while you may be tempted to lower the fever, it actually plays a crucial role in helping your body fight off infections.

What classifies as a fever? A fever is typically body temperature higher than 98.6 degrees, and either a cold or the flu can be the cause. A fever with a cold is typically mild, while a fever accompanying the flu may cause your temperature to rise over 102 degrees and can include shivering, sweating, dehydration and other symptoms.

If you have an infant or toddler with a fever, contact his or her pediatrician.

I have all of these symptoms; do I have the cold or flu?

Runny nose, fever and coughing are symptoms of both a cold and the flu, but that doesn’t mean these viruses are the same. Tanya Amin, MD, points out the differences:

“Although they are similar, the flu symptoms are much more severe. With the flu, symptoms tend to occur more rapidly, and within 24 hours the patient has everything at once. However, with a cold, the symptoms can progress more slowly, with a runny nose one day and a cough a few days later.”

In addition to symptom progression, body aches, nausea and vomiting are also more severe and prevalent with the flu.

Treatment

For a cold, patient comfort is the best medicine. Dr. Amin recommends Tylenol or ibuprofen, staying hydrated, and resting. The flu has a similar treatment plan, with the addition of a prescription antiviral drug that may shorten the length of the illness, but only if treated within the first 48 hours. “Contrary to what people may believe, antibiotics do not help with the cold or flu since they are caused by viruses, not bacteria.” Dr. Amin said.

If you have had symptoms for longer than 48 hours, follow the suggested treatment plan of hydration and over-the-counter medicine to keep you comfortable.

When should I see my primary care physician?

First, if you have an infant or toddler, cold and flu symptoms could indicate a more severe health issue. Adults should assess their own risk factors, include lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema, heart disease and pregnancy.

If you have any of these risk factors or symptoms last longer than two weeks, Dr. Amin suggests making an appointment with your primary care physician.

If you are looking for a primary care physician, UF Health Family Medicine offers board-certified physicians with a full range of medical services for patients of all age groups. If you wish to make an appointment with UF Health Family Medicine, call us at 352.265.9593 or visit our website UFHealth.org/family-medicine.

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Amanda Austin

Social Media Coordinator

Amanda manages UF Health's Facebook and Twitter accounts, and curates information about healthy and wellness, health industry news, and updates on UF Health research....Read More