Cold vs. Flu: The Lowdown on Upper Respiratory Infections

“Upper respiratory infections” is how many physicians refer to the type of illness that is the No. 1 reason for Americans missing school or work. The rest of us refer to these ailments as the common cold, and in more serious cases, the flu (influenza).

The primary difference between the common cold and the flu usually has to do with the severity of symptoms. The symptoms of flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness).

Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems.

Upper respiratory infections, colds and flu cases, represent the most frequent reason for a doctor visit in the U.S., with varying symptoms ranging from runny nose, sore throat and cough, to breathing difficulty, lethargy, fever and general malaise.

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor or visit an urgent care center promptly if you are at high risk of serious flu complications and you get flu symptoms, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People at high risk of flu complications include young children, adults 65 years of age and older, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

If you get sick with flu, antiviral drugs are a treatment option. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid, an inhaled powder, or an intravenous solution) that fight against flu viruses in your body, says the CDC. You can only get them if you have a prescription from a healthcare provider. Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics, which fight against bacterial infections.

“Antibiotics are rarely needed to treat upper respiratory infections, unless your doctor suspects you have a bacterial infection,” said Hanif Williams, M.D., a primary care physician with Baptist Health Primary Care.

Most people get over the common cold in a few days without the need for prescribed medication. Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses. And that includes colds, most sore throats and bronchitis cases, and some ear infections. U.S. and world health officials are concerned about the overuse of antibiotics and how that trend can promote antibiotic-resistant infections in the future. Up to one-third to one-half of antibiotic use is either unnecessary or inappropriate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cold vs. the Flu: Potential Complications

The common cold and flu are both contagious viral infections of the respiratory tract. Although the symptoms can be similar, the flu usually produces more serious symptoms that last longer. The CDC says colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. But the Flu can have very serious associated complications, the CDC says.

Most people who get influenza will recover in several days to less than two weeks. But some people will develop complications caused by a viral flu infection affecting the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, throat) and lower respiratory tract (lungs). Contact your primary care physicians if symptoms persist. Flu activity usually peaks between December and March, but can last as late as May. Everyone 6 months of age and older should have gotten a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible, the CDC says.

“Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone,” the CDC said.  “Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.”

Patients with a minor illness or injury can hold their place in line with “Save My Spot,” an online reservation system for all of Baptist Health’s Urgent Care and Urgent Care Express locations across South Florida.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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