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Flu versus Cold (Upper Respiratory Infections) versus Allergies & Their Treatment

by , last modified on 4/18/21


Everybody has heard of a alleriges, cold, or flu. However, confusion occurs when trying to define the differences between these illnesses all of which have common symptoms. Most people know by now that viral infections nor allergies can NOT be treated with antibiotics. As such, antibiotics should never prescribed unless a bacterial superinfection occurs on top of the viral infection or allergies. Even in this circumstance, an antibiotic (if given) will typically help resolve the bacterial infection, but be aware that you still won't feel great if the viral infection or allergies are still present. It is not unusual for an individual to think they are suffering from chronic sinus infections because of treating (incorrectly) a viral infection or allergies that happens to have a slight bacterial component. It is NOT recommended to give antibiotics in this situation if the bacterial infection is mild.

In any case, listed below are how you can tell the differences among a cold, flu, and allergies.

Fever Fever is rare with a cold. Fever is usually present with the flu in up to 80% of all flu cases. A temperature of 100°F or higher for 3 to 4 days is associated with the flu. No fever.
Coughing A hacking, productive (mucus-producing) cough is often present with a cold. A non-productive (non-mucus producing) cough is usually present with the flu (sometimes referred to as dry cough). Usually only if asthma present as well. However, if enough post-nasal drainage present, cough can occur even in non-asthmatics.
Aches Slight body aches and pains can be part of a cold. Severe aches and pains are common with the flu. No aches and pains.
Stuffy Nose Stuffy nose is commonly present with a cold and typically resolves spontaneously within a week. Stuffy nose is not commonly present with the flu. Stuffy nose is commonly present.
Chills Chills are uncommon with a cold. 60% of people who have the flu experience chills. No chills.
Tiredness Tiredness is fairly mild with a cold. Tiredness is moderate to severe with the flu. Tiredness is moderate.
Sneezing Sneezing is commonly present with a cold. Sneezing is not common with the flu. Sneezing is common.
Sudden Symptoms Cold symptoms tend to develop over a few days. The flu has a rapid onset within 3-6 hours. The flu hits hard and includes sudden symptoms like high fever, aches and pains. Rapid onset.
Headache A headache is fairly uncommon with a cold. A headache is very common with the flu, present in 80% of flu cases. A headache is not unusual.
Sore Throat Sore throat is commonly present with a cold. Sore throat is not commonly present with the flu. Sore throat is sometimes present if enough post-nasal drainage occurs.
Chest Discomfort Chest discomfort is mild to moderate with a cold. Chest discomfort is often severewith the flu. Usually only in asthmatics.
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Regardless of whether one is talking about the flu or cold, the only portals of entry are the nostrils and mouth/throat. In a global epidemic of this nature, it's almost impossible not coming into contact with H1N1 (and seasonal flu) in spite of all precautions. Contact with a flu virus is not so much of a problem as proliferation is. While you are still healthy and not showing any symptoms of a flu infection, in order to prevent proliferation, aggravation of symptoms and development of secondary infections, some very simple steps, not fully highlighted in most official communications, can be practiced (instead of focusing on how to stock N95 or Tamiflu):

  1. Get the flu shot as soon as possible!!! However, be aware that flu shots work at best only 60-70% of the time. Also, it takes about 2-3 weeks after the shot to be fully effective.
  2. Frequent hand-washing (well highlighted in all official communications).
  3. "Hands-off-the-face" approach. Resist all temptations to touch any part of face (unless you want to eat, bathe or slap).
  4. Gargle twice a day with warm salt water (use Listerine if you don't trust salt). H1N1 (and seasonal flu) takes 2-3 days after initial infection in the throat/nasal cavity to proliferate and show characteristic symptoms. Simple gargling prevents proliferation. In a way, gargling with salt water has the same effect on a healthy individual that Tamiflu has on an infected one. Don't under estimate this simple, inexpensive and powerful preventative method.
  5. Similar to 3 above, clean your nostrils at least once every day with warm salt water. Not everybody may be good at performing saline flushes (see below), but blowing the nose hard once a day and swabbing both nostrils with cotton swabs dipped in warm salt water is very effective in bringing down viral population. At the very least, use a saline nasal spray.
  6. Boost your natural immunity with foods that are rich in Vitamin C. If you have to supplement with Vitamin C tablets, make sure that it also has Zinc to boost absorption.
  7. Drink as much of warm liquids (tea, coffee, etc) as you can. Drinking warm liquids has the same effect as gargling, but in the reverse direction. They wash off proliferating viruses from the throat into the stomach where they cannot survive, proliferate or do any harm.

If you become severely ill, see your primary care doctor as you may require anti-virals and/or hospitalization.

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