Editor’s note: Because some symptoms of influenza and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference, and testing may be needed to confirm a diagnosis. Contact your primary care provider if you have flu-like symptoms to learn the best treatment for you.
“Whenever someone comes into Urgent Care and says she has the flu, I have no idea exactly what she means,” said Dr. Janet Gilbert, a Marshfield Clinic Health System urgent care physician.
Usually, though, Gilbert is able to determine quickly whether a patient has a cold, influenza or a gastrointestinal problem that people often mistakenly call the “flu.”
While she never wants to trivialize the common cold, in general symptoms are far worse with influenza (see chart below), a respiratory illness that can cause severe complications such as pneumonia and even death.
Flu symptoms hang on longer
Influenza acts fast and usually lasts a full week. A cold can cause plenty of misery, but less than influenza and it usually peaks after about 48 hours.
You can’t “cure” the cold or flu but you can ease symptoms somewhat by taking over-the-counter medication. Take a painkiller to relieve that all-over achy feeling. Then listen to your body.
“You need to lie down, rest and drink plenty of fluids,” Gilbert said. “People think dehydration is caused by vomiting or diarrhea, but you can also lose fluid through your skin. You don’t have to drink an entire quart at once but just take a sip every 10 minutes or so.”
When to seek care
In most cases, you don’t need to go to the doctor unless you’re having trouble breathing, can’t get your fever to go down or are showing signs of dehydration such as dizziness, weakness, confusion and fainting.
If you’re not sure what to do, call your doctor’s office.
Care My Way® gives quick treatment for common conditions like the flu. Download the app to get started.
This handy chart can help you recognize the difference between a cold and the flu based on your symptoms. Keep this information for when you need it.