Oct 1, 2006 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Colds and the Flu: Tips for Feeling Better

Am Fam Physician. 2006 Oct 1;74(7):1179-1180.

How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?

Colds and the flu cause many of the same symptoms. But colds are usually mild, while the flu tends to be more severe.

A cold often starts with feeling tired, sneezing, coughing, and having a runny nose. You may not have a fever, or you may run a low fever—just 1 or 2 degrees higher than usual. You may have muscle aches, a scratchy or sore throat, watery eyes, and a headache.

The flu starts suddenly and hits hard. You will probably feel weak and tired and have a fever, dry cough, a runny nose, chills, muscle aches, a bad headache, eye pain, and a sore throat. It usually takes longer to get over the flu than a cold.

What causes colds and the flu?

More than 100 different viruses can cause colds. There aren’t as many viruses that cause the flu. That’s why there is a shot for the flu and not for colds. To keep from getting the flu, all children between six months and five years of age, adults older than 50 years, and people with asthma or lung problems should get a flu shot every October or November.

What can I do to feel better?

There is no cure for a cold or the flu. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses. Unless you have the flu and see your doctor within two days after your symptoms start, all you can do to feel better is treat your symptoms while your body fights off the virus. You can also use over-the-counter cold medicines to help you feel better. Do not give children cold medicine without checking with your doctor first. People who take prescription medicine also should check with their doctor before taking over-the-counter cold medicine.

Ways to treat your cold and flu symptoms

  • Stay home and rest, especially while you have a fever.

  • Stop smoking, and avoid secondhand smoke.

  • Drink plenty of fluids like water, fruit juices, and clear soups.

  • Do not drink alcohol.

  • Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day if you have a sore throat. Throat sprays or lozenges may also help with the pain.

  • Use a nose spray to help loosen mucus and moisten the skin in your nose.

Should I call my doctor?

Most people do not need to see a doctor when they have a cold or the flu. But if you have any of the symptoms in the box below, call your doctor.

Emergency cold and flu symptoms

In children:

  • Fever above 102°F (38.9°C) or a fever that lasts a long time

  • A cold that lasts for more than 10 days

  • Trouble breathing, fast breathing, or wheezing

  • Bluish skin

  • Not drinking enough fluids

  • Earache or drainage from the ear

  • Mental changes (such as trouble waking up, irritability, or seizures)

  • Flu-like symptoms that get better but come back later with a fever and a worse cough

  • Chronic medical problems (such as diabetes or heart disease) that get worse

In adults:

  • Fever above 102°F (38.9°C) or a fever that lasts a long time

  • A cold that lasts for more than 10 days

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath

  • Pain or pressure in the chest

  • Fainting or feeling like you are about to faint

  • Confusion

  • Severe vomiting

  • Very bad pain in your face or forehead

  • Hoarseness, sore throat, or a cough that won’t go away


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2006 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact afpserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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