During this part of the season colds are among the most common health problems we all experience.  Adults average about 2 to 4 colds per year. Women tend to have colds more often than men.  The reason for this is not known, but is thought to be because women are more likely to be in contact with children, who are the most common sufferers of this condition.  Persons over the age of 50 are less likely to develop colds, averaging only about one per year.

Commonly, people come to the office or contact me asking if they have “the flu”, and whether or not they need to be treated.  This is a good question, because the treatment for influenza only works if it is started within the first 48 hours of symptoms.  After that, I simply advise treating the symptoms (ibuprofen or tylenol, fluids, rest, over the counter cough medication and decongestants).

So, what are the symptoms of influenza and how are they different from the common cold.  The most common ones include high fever (above 101 degrees Farenheight), nasal congestion, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, headache, coughing and fatigue.  These usually begin about two days after exposure and last about a week, although cough often lasts longer than this.

Many of these symptoms are shared with the common cold, which leads to the confusion about the diagnosis.  Moreover, influenza can be mild or severe, causing further confusion as to whether you have a cold or the the flu.

So, how can you tell?  The only way to tell for sure is to have a test, usually done with a nasal swab, for the influenza antigen.  But, common colds, although they may cause some mild muscle discomfort, fatigue and low grade fever, usually are much milder than influenza and allow us to continue our daily routines without having to “take to bed for a couple of days”.

So, if you come down with significant fever and chills, associated with respiratory symptoms, muscle aches and headache during the “flu season”, then you should assume that you have influenza and not just a common cold.  The sooner you can start a medication such as Tamiflu, if you have these symptoms, the more likely it is to be effective and reduce the severity of the illness.

And, remember to get your flu shot.  It doesn’t protect you perfectly, but makes it much less likely for you to get the flu and, if you do, it is likely to be less severe.