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Is It a Cold or the Flu?

By Susan Palmquist

Your nose feels blocked, your throat is sore and you’re starting to feel achy. You’re sure you’ve caught the cold that’s making the rounds — but then again, flu season is under way. Is there a simple way to figure out what exactly you’re coming down with? If so, should colds and flu be treated differently?

Knowing the difference between the flu and a cold can not only help you deal with the symptoms more effectively but also put you on guard for possible complications. “In the first few days of catching a cold or the flu it’s more difficult to differentiate between the two, but generally cold symptoms start to ease after a couple of days,” says Dr. Isaac Eliaz, an M.D. based in San Francisco who is also trained in Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

Generally, a cold lasts anywhere from seven to 10 days and manifests itself with such symptoms as a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and a low-grade fever. It usually goes away all by itself. Flu, on the other hand, generally includes more body aches, higher fever and the general feeling of fatigue and achiness.

When to worry?
So at what stage should you start to worry that the flu or even a cold might be turning into something more serious?

“Most people will have a temperature spike at the onset of their cold or flu, but one thing you should look out for is a temperature that spikes two or three days after the onset of your symptoms,” says Eliaz. “Some other things to be cautious about are if you have alternating fever and chills, a cough that gets worse or you start producing green or yellow mucus. If you have any of those symptoms, it’s best to see your doctor.”

Common respiratory ailments accompanying colds and flu include bronchitis and pneumonia, with symptoms including a fever that’s more than 100 degrees, shallow or painful breathing and pain in the chest.

Another problem to be aware of is strep throat. People often think their sore throat is a symptom of the cold or flu, but if you have a sore throat that’s not accompanied by a runny nose, have swollen lymph nodes and can see white streaks or pus on your tonsils, there’s a good chance you have a strep throat. Left untreated, it can lead to rheumatic fever. Only a doctor can make a proper diagnosis. Eliaz says your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics and suggests that you also take probiotics to protect your gut from the effects.

Another common problem and sometimes a side effect of colds and flu is sinusitis. Close to 50 to 60 percent of people suffering from chronic sinusitis aren’t aware they have a problem, according to Eliaz. He suggests this simple test: put your index finger under the orbital bone beneath your eye and press for about 15 to 20 seconds. If you feel pain, even after you’ve stopped pressing, there’s a good chance you have a sinus infection.

Comfort measures
If you do succumb to a cold — or worse still, the flu — Eliaz suggests plenty of rest, staying warm and hydrated and taking both vitamin C and zinc.

Can you avoid colds altogether? Eliaz says you can. “Whether you succumb to a cold or not largely depends on a combination of the strength of the pathogens and the strength of your immune system,” he says. “Sometimes if you feel like you’re coming down with a cold, just taking a rest can avert it.”

Eliaz suggests thinking of your immune system as an army that’s trained to protect you. He recommends taking immune-boosting compounds such as medicinal mushrooms that can be purchased at your local health food store or co-op. Get plenty of rest, keep your body warm and if you feel the first signs of a cold coming on, try eating spicy foods: fresh ginger, honey and even some brandy. Most important, rest and keep yourself hydrated.

Learn more
Dr. Eliaz
Mayo Clinic

© Susan Palmquist

Food Editor Susan Palmquist contributes to 10 different publications and writes a weekly column that can be viewed every Friday at Garden and Hearth.

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