Student Health and Wellness Services

Colds and Flu

Colds and flu are both extremely common infections. However, colds are hundreds of times more common than influenza except during flu epidemics. These illnesses share many features:

  • caused by viruses
  • highly contagious
  • involve the respiratory tract
  • fairly predictable seasonal pattern

Because of these similarities, the terms “cold” and “flu” are often used interchangeably. However, there are important differences between these two types of infections, particularly in terms of prevention, severity and treatment.

  • Get a flu shot every year. Flu shots are widely available and Student Health Services has a limited number of doses available during Fall Semester.
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently and definitely after touching things like doorknobs, stair rails, and public computer keyboards. Also clean hands before eating.
  • Minimize contact with sick people. If you do have to care for or be around a sick person, consider wearing a mask or ask that person to wear one.
  • Don’t touch the T-zone. Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth without washing your hands thoroughly.
  • Cover your cough.

Sign and Symptoms

Influenza

Colds

Onset Sudden (within a few hours) Gradual (over a day or two)
Fever Characteristicly high (over 101°F); lasting 2-4 days Occasional
Cough Nonproductive; can become severe Hacking at first, later may be productive
Headache Prominent and often severe Frequent and usually less severe
Muscle aches
Usual; often severe Slight
Fatigue; weakness Can last up to 2-3 weeks Very mild
Extreme exhaustion Early and prominent Seldom
Chest discomfort Common Mild to moderate
Stuffy, runny nose Occasional Very common
Sneezing Occasional Usual
Season Most cases between November and February All year round, with peak in the winter
Severity Severe illness, especially in first 2-4 days Mild to moderate illness
Do antibiotics help? No No

Medication

Symptoms They Treat

Overall pain and fever reducers—
  Tylenol, Bayer, Anacin, Motrin IB, Advil
Headaches, minor aches and pains, fever
Decongestants—
  Sudafed, Privine, Afrin, Neo-Synephrine
Nasal congestion, sinus pressure and sinus congestion
Antihistamines (may cause drowsiness)
  Dimetapp Chlor-Trimeton, Tavist-1, Benedryl
Runny nose, watery eyes
Cough Suppressants—
  Robitussin DM
Cough
Cough Medications—
  Robitussin (various preparations)
Cough
Local Throat Pain Relief—
  Cepacol, Sucrets, Cepastat Lozenges
Sore throat

The most serious complication of influenza is pneumonia—an infection of the lungs. Pneumonia can be caused by the influenza virus itself, or by bacteria that are able to enter the lungs because natural defenses have been weakened by the flu. Anyone with persistent symptoms beyond a week merits medical attention. In addition, marked difficulty breathing or chest pain associated with coughing at any point during the illness should prompt a visit to the doctor.

Seek medical attention if you have:

  • a temperature over 101°F for more than 48 hours.
  • a cough associated with pain in the chest.
  • shortness of breath (which is different from a stuffy nose).
  • persistent sore throat, especially without the runny or stuffy nose typical of a cold.
  • an extremely red throat.
  • no improvement within 7 days.
  • severe headache with a fever.
  • worsening pain in one or both ears.
  • any chronic medical condition, such as asthma or diabetes, which may complicate a cold.

REFERENCES: Guidelines for the prevention/treatment of Influenza and The Common Cold, Amer. Lung Assoc. August 2008
About Antibiotics
Comfort Measures for your Cold or Flu
When to See a Doctor