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Cold or Flu? What are the Symptoms and How to Treat Them

As the official start of winter approaches, I’ve been getting more questions at the pharmacy about how to treat cold and flu (influenza) symptoms.  Because we stay indoors more when it gets cold outside, and the humidity levels drop with the decrease in temperature, we become more susceptible to colds and flu.  Both illnesses are caused by viruses, but the symptoms and treatments are different, so it’s important to know whether you are suffering with a cold or the flu.

Which one is it?  Here is a comparison of the symptoms of a cold vs flu:

Cold symptoms Flu symptoms
Low or no fever High fever
Sometimes a headache A headache very common
Stuffy, runny nose Clear nose
Sneezing Sometimes sneezing
Mild, hacking cough Cough, often becoming severe
Slight aches and pains Often severe aches and pains
Mild fatigue Several weeks of fatigue
Sore throat Sometimes a sore throat
Normal energy level or may feel sluggish Extreme exhaustion

A cold is relatively harmless and may last for a few days to a week or more, but sometimes it may lead to a secondary infection, such as an ear or sinus infection. However, the flu can lead to complications, such as pneumonia and even death. If you are concerned you may have symptoms of the flu, visit one of our CHI Health locations with walk-in appointments available.

How to treat a cold

If you think you have a cold or flu, as a pharmacist I recommend the following products based on a patient’s symptoms:

Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen for body aches, fever, or headache.

Antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, or Allegra) for sneezing, watery eyes, and runny noses.

A cough syrup containing dextromethorphan to help quiet the cough.

Decongestants, like Sudafed, can help with a stuffy nose, but always check with your pharmacist first if you take blood pressure medications, thyroid medications, or have glaucoma, prostate, heart conditions or diabetes.  A saline nasal rinse can also be a great help in washing out mucus and relieving nasal stuffiness.

Increasing the humidity in your home, or taking a warm shower and breathing in the steam, will also make you feel more comfortable.  Make sure to drink more water to stay hydrated and help thin out nasal discharge.

How to Treat the Flu

For suspected influenza, you can also get a prescription from your healthcare provider for Tamiflu or a new drug called Xofluza.  Both of these may shorten the duration of the flu.  Many of our CHI Health clinics have Priority Care, so you may be seen with no appointment needed. The prescription can be sent over to our CHI Health pharmacy, just steps away, so it’s ready before you leave the clinic.

As with any infection, hand washing is very important, so anytime you sneeze or cough, make sure to wash those hands!  Cover your cough with a tissue and dispose of it right away to decrease the chance you’ll spread it to others.   If you suspect you have the flu, stay home and rest.  Influenza is also very contagious -- your coworkers will thank you for staying home.

And most importantly, make sure you get a yearly flu shot.  All of our CHI Health pharmacies are available to give immunizations with no appointment.  It’s not too late, so stop in today if you haven’t gotten one yet this year.

Our helpful CHI Health pharmacists are able to answer any questions you have about colds, flu, treatment and prevention.

Ann Thompson, RP, BCACP
Ann Thompson, RP, BCACP

Ann Thompson has been a pharmacist with CHI Health for 23 years, and is currently the CHI Health Retail Pharmacy manager. She has a board certification in Ambulatory Care, and loves working with patients and helping them manage their medications and overall health. In her spare time, she enjoys exercising, trying new healthy recipes, and spending time outdoors.

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