Is it the Flu or Just a Cold?

Thurston County Public Health


Submitted by Thurston County Public Health

Back-to-school means different things to different people. For those of us with school-aged children, it often means, among other things, the beginning of cold and flu season.

The flu (influenza) and common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. Flu is caused by influenza viruses, whereas colds can be caused be several different kinds of viruses. Because these two illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell which virus you have based on symptoms alone.

The flu can be mild to severe, but quite often it is worse than the common cold. Symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills

    Thurston County Public Health
    Flu vaccines are now available from your physicians office and many sources throughout the county.
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Children may also have vomiting and diarrhea.

Every year, the flu season varies—when it occurs, when it’s at its highest (peak) level, how long it lasts, and the severity of illnesses. Flu season typically begins in early October and can last through the end of May. Last year’s flu season was worse than normal; the CDC reported that flu activity was widespread in 40 states, including ours. In addition, last year’s flu hit people 65 and older very hard. We don’t know yet what this year’s flu season will bring.

Complications of the flu can include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, but it can also lead to hospitalization and death. People who are high risk of complications from the flu are those 65 years and older, people with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.

Testing is the only way to be sure if an illness is a cold or the flu, but it must be done within the first few days of illness.

The single best way to protect against the flu is to get yourself and your family vaccinated each year. The vaccine doesn’t always prevent the flu, but it can lessen the severity and length of the illness. Antiviral medications may be recommended for people who are at high risk of complications (people 65 years and older, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic health conditions).

Bacteria and viruses are all around us; the best way to fight them off is to take care of yourself. This means getting plenty of rest, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet with minimal sugar, caffeine and alcohol, balancing work and play, and practicing good hygiene

If you do get sick, follow these guidelines to help prevent the spread of illness:

  • Stay home if you are sick. This means not going to work or school, and staying away from public places.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing with a tissue or your sleeve (preferably the crook of your arm), and teach your children to do the same.
  • Dispose of used tissues in the nearest waste basket.
  • Wash your hands often with warm water and soap or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Teach your children to do the same.
  • Sanitize equipment like shopping carts, gym equipment, toys, fuel pump nozzles, key boards, phones.

The vision of the Thurston Thrives Clinical and Emergency Care Action Team is that “more people live longer, healthier lives, because they take care of themselves and received right care at the right place at the right time.” Taking care of yourself and contacting your healthcare provider when needed supports this vision.

When it comes to cold and flu season, please do your part to help keep yourself, your family and others healthy; if you and your family haven’t gotten flu vaccines yet, now is the time to do so. Call your child’s pediatrician’s office if your child has a fever that doesn’t come down with age-appropriate doses of Tylenol or Advil, if she can’t keep fluids down, has uncontrollable diarrhea, has difficulty breathing, or if is in a high risk group for flu complications.


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