You’re not feeling well. You’re exhausted, coughing and have a stuffy nose. How do you know if it’s the flu or merely a cold?
Flu and cold symptoms are similar and may differ only in severity. To quickly tell if you’re probably dealing with the flu versus a cold, infectious disease expert Susan Rehm, MD, suggests thinking of F.A.C.T.S. (It stands for fever, aches, chills, tiredness and sudden onset — all symptoms pointing to flu.)
Symptoms that turn on like a light switch are telling. “A respiratory illness that comes on suddenly, like you’re being hit by a ton of bricks, may very well be flu,” says Dr. Rehm.
A stuffy nose, sore throat and hoarseness without the other symptoms indicate a cold, she says. For adults, vomiting is a sign of a stomach bug rather than flu. (Flu affects the respiratory tract and not the digestive tract.)
“If you feel like you’re getting flu symptoms, contact your healthcare professional as soon as you can,” says Dr. Rehm. “You might be a candidate for prescription antiviral medication that specifically works against the flu.”
Antiviral medication can lessen the effects and shorten the duration of flu. However, it works best when given within the first 48 hours.
If you’re at high risk because you have a chronic medical condition or are pregnant, antiviral medicine might mean the difference between a milder flu and a very serious flu that results in a hospital stay.
But flu vaccine remains your best protection against flu and flu complications like pneumonia, says Dr. Rehm. Vaccination is critical for those at highest risk: children under 5, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions. Get yours as early as possible in flu season – the vaccines take two weeks to work. But getting your vaccine late is better than not getting it at all, she says.