Is It a Cold or the Flu? Here’s How to Tell

Sick man taking temperatureJudging by all the people sneezing and coughing on my flight last week, and the ubiquitous “Get your flu shot” signs at every pharmacy, it’s obvious we’ve begun the dreaded cold and flu season.

So how can you tell if your aches and scratchy throat are a typical cold or a more serious bout of the flu? A quick rule of thumb is that cold symptoms generally occur from the neck up, whereas flu symptoms take over your whole body.

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Here are some other ways to tell, plus the very latest tips — from drinking green tea to gargling — for how to keep from getting sick.

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How to prevent getting a cold

Once the cold season starts, gargle daily and take probiotics. Gargling can lower your risk of getting sick, research shows, and probiotics may also help prevent colds and boost your immune system, a 2011 Cochrane review of research found. Preventive medicine expert Mark Moyad, M.D., of the University of Michigan Medical Center and author of Dr. Moyad’s No BS Health Advice, recommends eating yogurt with active cultures or taking probiotic supplements. Supplements containing lactobacillus should have at least 5 billion colony-forming units per daily serving.

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Get my flu shot now, or wait?

Get it as early as possible — it not only protects you against the flu, recent studies show it can cut your risk of heart attacks and stroke by 36 percent. “The flu vaccine has the side benefit of controlling the extreme levels of inflammation that occur with serious infections,” which is damaging to the heart, Moyad says. Plus, a flu shot  protects both children and adults against pneumonia, a new Vanderbilt University study found.

When to go to work, when to stay home

You’re contagious even before your symptoms start getting bad, say infectious disease experts, so if you wake up feeling under the weather, the virus is already multiplying. In addition, you remain contagious for five to seven days after becoming ill. So do your friends and colleagues a favor — stay home and don’t infect them. Another reason to avoid the office: Side effects from cold or flu medication can make you too groggy to work.

To prevent flu: Drink green tea, wash hands, wear a mask

Green tea has catechins, a type of antioxidant, that can help protect against the flu, recent studies suggest. Even more dramatic: A 2012 study found that wearing a surgical mask and regularly washing your hands during the flu season resulted in a whopping 75 percent reduction in flu risk. Need another reason to wash your hands? Viruses survive on surfaces between two and eight hours, so people touching those surfaces who then touch their mouth or nose can get sick as the virus enters the respiratory tract.

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Think you have the flu? Pick up the phone

Prescription antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu, can shorten your misery by one to two days and help prevent complications such as pneumonia, but you need to take the medication within the first two days of the start of symptoms. In other words, don’t wait to call your doctor.

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