Under the weather? Tips to help you figure out if it's the flu or a cold.

October 6, 2022 Swedish Primary Care Team
In this article:
  • Adults get 4 to 6 colds every year. Children get as many as 10.
  • The flu brings 3.4 million people to the doctor’s office, ER and retail care clinics each year.
  • Fortunately, most of the time, you can take care of a cold or flu at home. But, it’s important to know the signs that it’s time to get medical care for your symptoms.
Temperatures are falling and days are getting shorter. It can be a beautiful time of year when the seasons change. But, as we start to spend more time indoors, we’ll also see an uptick of cold and flu cases. Whether you’re battling the common cold or fighting off the flu, it’s important to know how to feel better at home, and when it’s time to see a provider. 

Prevention is the best medicine

Of course, the best thing you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy is to be proactive this cold and flu season. The same steps you take to ward off any infection or virus can help lower your risk of getting a cold or the flu.
  • Get vaccinated. There isn’t a shot to reduce your risk of catching a common cold, but the flu and COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to reduce your risk of experiencing severe illness or hospitalization from these viruses.
  • Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating, after using the bathroom and after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose. Consider using hand sanitizer when you’re out and about.
  • Wear a mask. A mask stops the spread of all germs – cold, flu, COVID-19 and other viruses. Consider wearing a mask if you’ll be in a crowded indoor place, are immunocompromised (or live with someone immunocompromised) or just want to do your best to stay healthy.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. Help stop the spread of illness by staying home if you’re not feeling well. Ask others to do the same when you’re planning a get-together.

Caring for your cold

According to the National Institutes of Health, there are as many as 1 billion colds in the United States every year. It’s no surprise, then, that colds are easily spread from person to person. Just like most viruses, you can get a cold from touching something that has cold germs on it or standing near someone who’s sick and coughing or sneezing. Get ready for this year’s cold season and learn how to identify cold symptoms and, more importantly, feel better.

Symptoms of a common cold

Colds can cause a wide range of symptoms – from a little bit of congestion to feeling like there aren’t enough tissues in a store to stop your runny nose. Here are a few of the most common symptoms of a cold:
  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Headaches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

At-home remedies for your cold

It can take as long as seven to 10 days to recover from a cold. While that might not seem long, when you’re battling a stuffy nose, cough and sore throat, one week can seem like a month. Here are a few ways to help relieve your symptoms at home:
  • Get plenty of rest and help your immune system fight off the cold virus.
  • Drink lots of fluids to help thin mucus and flush it out of your body.
  • Try a humidifier to loosen congestion and help yourself breathe easier.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol to help relieve body aches.
  • Gargle warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt in one cup water) to soothe a sore throat.

You may also want to talk to your provider before taking over-the-counter cold medicine. Some medicines have ingredients that might interfere with a prescription. Your healthcare provider (or pharmacist) can help you find safe and effective relief for your cold symptoms.

When to see your doctor for your cold

Fortunately, colds can typically be taken care of at home. But, a cold virus weakens your immune system, so you may be at higher risk of a bacterial infection like a secondary sinus infection or even ear infection.
Adults should see a provider for cold symptoms if they think you need to be seen or have any of the following symptoms:
  • Ear pain
  • A fever for more than three days
  • A fever that returns after being fever free for 24 hours
  • A severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms that worsen after three days
  • Wheezing
Children should see a provider for cold symptoms if they have:
  • A rising fever for more than two days
  • Severe symptoms
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness

Fight the flu

The flu vaccine has helped millions of people avoid severe illness, hospitalization and even death. Still, the flu can be a serious illness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can affect between 3% and 11% of the U.S. population, depending on the season. And it accounts for 31.4 million outpatient visits to healthcare providers’ offices, clinics and emergency rooms in that same time frame.
Similar to a cold, the flu is a respiratory illness that can infect the nose, throat and even lungs. However, since these illnesses are caused by different viruses, they can bring about different symptoms and even severity of illness; the flu can sometimes bring on serious health complications while people recover quickly from a cold. Knowing the early signs of the flu can help prevent complications and help you know when you need to see a provider.

Flu symptoms

The telltale signs of the flu are body aches and fatigue. Other common flu symptoms include:
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Weakness

Relief for your flu symptoms

The CDC offers five solid tips for taking care of yourself when sick with the flu.
They include:
  • Stay home and rest.
  • Avoid close contact with others in your household.
  •  Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and clear liquids.
  • Try over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms like cough, fever and body aches.
  • Call your provider if you are very sick or at risk of complications.

When to see a healthcare provider for the flu

Most of the time, you can safely stay at home and rest while sick with the flu. Some people are at higher risk of complications (including severe illness) from the flu. That includes:
  • Children under the age of 5
  • Adults over the age of 65
  • Pregnant people
  • People with certain conditions, such as:
o   Asthma
o   Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions
o   Chronic lung disease
o   Heart disease
o   Blood disorders
o   Endocrine disorders
o   Kidney disorders
o   Liver disorders
o   Metabolic disorders
o   Weakened immune systems
o   Morbid obesity
If you’re at risk, let your healthcare provider know as soon as possible if you’ve been exposed to the flu or think you may be sick. You may need to take an antiviral medication to help reduce the severity of your illness. Even if you aren’t at higher risk of complications from the flu, it may be better to err on the side of caution and see a provider if you’re worried about your symptoms. 

Learn more and find a provider

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Flu and COVID-19 vaccine facts: What you need to know

No more excuses! It's time for that wellness checkup

Cold Versus Flu | CDC

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Our job is to provide you with the resources to keep you healthy, and as such the Swedish Primary Care team offers a mix of clinical advice based on decades of experience, tips and health hacks to prevent illnesses, and recommendations for specialty care services when needed.

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