Cold vs. Flu
Thomas Serbousek, MD, Medical Director for UnityPoint Clinic Urgent Care


The cold and flu season is upon us, so what’s the difference?
The common cold is caused by a virus.  The most common virus is the adenovirus; however there are other viruses that essentially demonstrate the same symptoms.  Respiratory Syncytial Virus or “RSV” is an example.

The best way to protect yourself and limit spread of these viruses is by washing your hands with warm soap and water, as well as covering your mouth when coughing.  There is no cure for these viruses other than your own immune system and time.  Also, there is no immunization to help prevent the disease.

The most common symptoms are a runny nose, cough, sore throat and sneezing.  The common cold usually lasts 7-10 days and is self-limited.  However, it can lead to ear infections, sinuses infections and in some people pneumonia.  You should seek medical attention is you develop trouble breathing, ear pain or the symptoms have lasted longer than 10 days, or are getting much worse after a week.

The “Flu” is caused by the Influenza virus.  The best way to prevent the flu is to receive a flu immunization every year.  Each year the Center for Disease Control, i.e. CDC, determines what the likely strains will be.  There are 2 types of Influenza - Influenza A and B.  The flu shot covers both.

Symptoms of influenza include a rapid onset of fever, body aches, sore throat and cough.  The symptoms of influenza are much more pronounced than the common cold.  Patients often feel as if they’ve been “hit by a truck”.  If you develop these symptoms see your primary care provider, i.e. PCP as soon as possible as there is treatment for the flu.  The sooner you start the medication the better it works.  It is best to get treatment started in the first 48 hours.  The treatment doesn’t cure the flu, but it significantly reduces the symptoms and shortens the duration of the illness.  As with all diseases, good hand washing hygiene will help stop the spread of the flu.

If you think you have a cold or the flu, visit your primary care provider or go to UnityPoint Clinic Urgent Care. Urgent Care is open daily from 8am-8pm.

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