Dr. MJ Bazos MD, Patient Handouts
Flu and Colds
How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?
Colds and the flu (influenza) cause many of the same symptoms. But a cold is generally mild, while the flu tends to be more severe.
Ways to treat your cold/flu symptoms
You can help yourself feel better by treating your symptoms while your body fights off the virus.
  • Stay home and rest, especially while you have a fever.
  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Drink plenty of fluids like water, fruit juices and clear soups.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day to relieve a sore throat. Throat sprays or lozenges may also help relieve the pain.
  • Use salt water (saline) nose drops to help loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin in your nose.
What’s in over-the-counter cold/flu medicines?
These ingredients are found in many cold/flu medicines. Read labels carefully. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Analgesics relieve aches and pains and reduce fever. Examples: acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen. Warning: Children and teenagers shouldn’t be given aspirin.
  • Antitussives tell your brain to stop coughing. Example: dextromethorphan. Don’t take an antitussive if you’re coughing up mucus.
  • Expectorants help thin mucus so it can be coughed up more easily. Example: guaifenesin.
  • Oral decongestants shrink the passages in the nose and reduce congestion. Examples: phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. Note: Before you take a decongestant, check the label for a drug called phenylpropanolamine, or PPA. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently recalled this drug for safety reasons. If a medicine contains PPA, don’t take it.
A cold often starts with feeling tired, sneezing, coughing and having a runny nose. You may not have a fever or you may run a low fever — just 1 or 2 degrees higher than usual. You may also have muscle aches, a scratchy or sore throat, watery eyes and a headache.
The flu starts suddenly and hits hard. You’ll probably feel weak and tired, and have a fever, dry cough, a runny nose, chills, muscle aches, severe headache, eye pain and a sore throat.
What causes colds and the flu?
Viruses. Over 100 different viruses can cause colds. There aren’t as many viruses that cause the flu. That’s why there’s a shot to help prevent the flu but not colds.
What about medicine?
No medicine can cure a cold or the flu. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses. Some medicines can help relieve some of your cold or flu symptoms. Check with your doctor before giving any medicine to children. Many cold and flu products are available without a prescription. See the box to the right for a guide to the common ingredients in these products.
Some prescription medicines can help flu symptoms. These medicines may help reduce the severity of symptoms if they are started soon after you begin to get sick. These medicines come as pills or as an inhaler. The inhaled type may cause problems for some people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Should I call my doctor?
In most cases, you don’t need to see your doctor when you have a cold or the flu. However, call your doctor if you have any of the following: