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When a Cough Means Cold vs. Flu

Jan 17, 2019

When a Cough Means Cold vs. Flu

When you have a cough, it can indicate any number of health concerns, from allergies to a cold or even the flu. So, how can you tell how serious your cough truly is and when you should potentially seek medical assistance?

Cough associated with a Cold

Coming down with a cold can be a miserable affair, but thankfully, only for a few days. Typically when a cold starts, you will usually experience a sore throat for a day or two, followed by nasal symptoms, like a runny nose and congestion, then a cough around days four and five. Adults may rarely experience a slight fever, but this symptom is one more present in children with a cold.

A cough associated with a cold will usually be considered mild to moderate, and lean towards a hacking cough. In otherwise healthy individuals, there will be no real risk for potential complications.

Colds can be caused by many different viruses – several hundred, in fact – so there is no cure. You are most contagious for the first three days of symptoms, so staying home to rest will help keep others around you healthy. Thankfully, as colds are a much more mild illness, the potential for complications is minimal, so any treatment can be limited to alleviating symptoms through the duration. However, if you still are feeling bad after a week, it could be indicative of a bacterial infection which will require antibiotics for full treatment.

Cough associated with the Flu

Unlike colds, the flu begins suddenly and severely. You will have many of the same symptoms, including sore throat, congestion, and cough, but will usually also experience fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness. Particular flu viruses, such as the swine flu, may also cause vomiting and diarrhea. Many individuals will feel symptoms improve after two to five days, but it is common to feel bad for a week or more.

Coughs associated with the flu are very common and can become quite severe, resulting in complications like pneumonia or bronchitis, even in typically healthy individuals. The flu virus unfortunately can become life-threatening for many.

There are several different flu virus strains that circulate each year, and the best protection is to receive an annual flu vaccine. If you are ill and feel you are short of breath, or you come down with a returning fever, contact your doctor right away as it could indicate pneumonia.

When to Call the Doctor for a Cough

For general coughs, there may not be much that can be offered other than over-the-counter medications to help alleviate discomfort. If you experience the following, you will want to contact the doctor right away for further evaluation:

  • Painful Swallowing: Colds and flu will generally cause a sore throat, but anything that feels severe could indicate a different infection – strep throat – that will require medical treatment.
  • Persistent Coughing: If your cough continues for two to three weeks after your cold or flu, you may have bronchitis. The only way to treat this is by prescribed antibiotics. This prolonged coughing could also be caused by postnasal drip, sinusitis, or asthma, so proper evaluation will be required.

Any adult ill with cold or flu that experiences severe chest pain, severe headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, or persistent vomiting should be taken to an emergency room right away.

If you aren’t sure whether your cough may be due to a cold or a flu virus, visit one of our convenient locations today.

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