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How To Know It’s The Flu

It’s that time of year again, and we are already starting to see sporadic cases of flu in the community. 

How do we know what we are seeing is flu?

Even though the symptoms of the flu are pretty similar to the common cold, there are a couple of distinguishing characteristics for flu. 

The first is often the rapidity of onset….patients usually know exactly when the flu hits them.  A patient with the flu can tell me they started feeling bad around 3 pm on Saturday. Colds and other viruses tend to come on more gradually.

The flu is also discernible from the common cold by the presence of a high fever, diffuse muscle aches, significant fatigue, and/or prominent headaches.  These symptoms are rare with the common cold. 

In the clinic, we usually can quickly tell if a patient likely has the flu by looks alone.  A patient suffering from a cold looks miserable.  A patient suffering from the flu looks really, really miserable. 

It’s The Flu, Now What?

For most healthy people, there is not much physicians can do to treat the flu or colds.  We can treat the symptoms with over-the-counter medication and recommend rest and plenty of fluids for the 7 to 10 day duration of the virus.

However, the flu can be deadly and is associated with tens of thousands of deaths each year in America.  This is especially true for the very young, very old, pregnant women, people with a BMI >40 and people with confounding health conditions like asthma, COPD, renal or liver disease   For these individuals, it is a good idea to visit your primary care physician if you think you have the flu.  There are medications available that, if taken early – usually within 48 hours of onset of symptoms, can help to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms of the flu and are indicated for these higher risks patients.

It is also a good idea to see a doctor if symptoms of either a cold or the flu suddenly get worse.  A worsening of symptoms might indicate that the original virus has become complicated by a secondary bacterial infection like pneumonia.

Of course, the best defense against the flu is to eat well, get plenty of rest, avoid sick people, wash your hands frequently and get the flu shot.  No, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot.  I promise.  See this previous blog by my peer Dr. John Holly to clear some flu vaccine confusion. 

Also, here’s a quick reference comparing the flu and cold symptoms.

Dr. Brian Klausner is a primary care physician with Wake Specialty Physicians – City Center Medical Group (located near Buku in downtown Raleigh).  He is currently accepting new patients.