With the rampant spread of the incredibly potent influenza virus this cold and flu season, it's difficult to know when a sick kid = a trip to the doctor. Most parents don't want to drag their miserable child to a nearby, probably crowded waiting room if they're just experiencing a cold, but the flu can be potentially deadly for young children, so it's not like you want to wait for things to get serious, either. Thankfully, there are ways to tell if it's the flu or a cold that can help you, the parent, decide what the best course of action is for your sick child.
The main difference between the flu and a cold is the level of severity, as they can both cause similar symptoms and, in some cases, even overlap. The flu and a cold are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses, but a cold usually isn't nearly as intense as the flu. With a cold, for example, you might experience a runny or stuffy nose. With the flu you could end up navigating serious health complications, like pneumonia. So if you're looking to prevent yourself, or your little ones, from getting the flu, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says it's important to get the flu shot yearly. Yes, you're still at risk of contracting the flu, but the vaccine does minimize that risk significantly.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the flu as having a "fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). If you have a cold you may exhibit similar symptoms, just not to the same extent. It may seem like common sense, sure, but if you have the extreme version of one or the other, you may need to take a trip to the doctor in order to obtain an accurate diagnosis.
Dr. Ryan Light of Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group tells News 3 in Norfolk, Virginia that, "A rapid flu test is the only way to differentiate a bad cold from the flu." Dr. Light adds that if you have flu-like symptoms, but still aren't sure, a trip to the doctor is still best. If antiviral medications need to be prescribed, know that they work best in the first 48 hours after the onset of the flu.
LiveScience.com says there are differentiators between the cold and flu that are pretty obvious, but only if you're paying close attention to your body. Colds generally come on gradually, with a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing, while the flu is more sudden and accompanied by a fever. There may be body aches with each, although you'll probably find yourself significantly more uncomfortable if you have the flu. And above all else, a cold rarely develops into something more serious, like an infection or pneumonia. But if you have the flu and it goes untreated, you're likely to experience a serious health complication. Healthline.com adds that a cold will come and go between 7-10 days, sometimes lasting up to two weeks, but the flu typically lasts 1-2 weeks. During that time, you're likely to experience severe symptoms.
Because the two illnesses can feel so similar, it's rather difficult to know when to go to your nearest doctor's office and when to wait it out. Dr. Navya Mysore, a primary care physician with One Medical Group, tells Health.com that if you've recovered from your illness, but the illness returns, you could have a "superinfection." In the event it turns out to be strep, pneumonia, or something more serious, you'll require additional treatment. Other signs that your may be more than a cold would be a high fever (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit), a consistent low-grade fever for a few days, tummy troubles, severe headaches, or pain in one main location (tonsils or ears). If you experience any of the aforementioned, you should should seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
It's an especially challenging flu season, with the H3N2 strain wreaking havoc on immune systems of the young, old, and seemingly everyone in between. Reports speculate that it might get worse before it gets better, too. If you aren't sure whether or not what you, or your children, have is a cold that will fade on its own, or a persistent and resistant strain of the flu, it's definitely worth checking in with your doctor to be sure.
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