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House Call: Is it a cold or the flu?

It sometimes can be hard to distinguish between the flu and a cold. There are vaccines for the flu, and doctors urge people get a flu shot each year.
It sometimes can be hard to distinguish between the flu and a cold. There are vaccines for the flu, and doctors urge people get a flu shot each year.
By Dr. Bob Riggs From The Spokesman-Review

We are deep into what you might call “cold season” and while we have seen a few cases of influenza, the “flu season” has not really kicked in yet.

Influenza and common cold symptoms are similar and can be difficult to distinguish from each other. They are both caused by viruses, cause many respiratory symptoms and leave you feeling generally lousy. The most important differences between a cold and the flu is that the risk of dying from the flu is much higher and there are yearly vaccines available to decrease the spread and severity of influenza infections. Below is a handy list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the difference between influenza and a cold.






















Stuffy nose



Sore throat









Since they are both caused by viruses, I recommend that most patients ride it out and use whatever home and over-the-counter remedies you find give your relief. Sinus rinses (boil your water and let it cool, or buy distilled or sterile water) and tissues infused with lotion to prevent a raw nose are favorites of mine when I have a cold, with acetaminophen for aches and fever.

Antibiotics will not make the duration of your illness shorter or lessen the severity. They are only advisable for secondary bacterial infections that are not resolving themselves, such as a sinus infection that you still have after a month of diligent daily sinus rinses, or a secondary pneumonia that sometimes develops.

There are antiviral drugs available that are effective against the flu but not colds. Their value lies in use within 48 hours of the onset of illness in people at higher risk of complications such as pneumonia. They can also be given for prevention in persons at higher risk of complications.

If you or someone you know suspects the flu and has a compromised immune system, a history of respiratory problems or disease or are frail or elderly, call your health care professional immediately so he or she can make an assessment and a decision about whether antiviral treatment may be advisable.

Children can go from being sick and cranky to very sick in the blink of an eye. If a child develops any of the following, immediate medical attention is in order:

Rapid, difficult breathing

Bluish skin color

Not urinating

No tears when crying

Not waking up or interacting

Symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Fever with rash

Irritability that cannot be alleviated

Signs that an adult need immediate medical attention are as follows:

Difficulty breathing

Shortness of breath

Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen

Sudden dizziness


Severe or persistent vomiting

Symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Whether you have influenza or a cold, stay well hydrated, get as much rest as you can, and do your best not to spread it around. Stay home if you can, wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer, and cover your mouth and nose (preferably with a tissue that you then throw away). If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, it is not too late. Go get it done.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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