STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's that time of year. You wake up with a sore throat, stuffy nose, fever. Maybe you lose your voice - happened to me just last week. And you wonder, is this the flu or just a cold? You can actually find out. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The symptoms can be similar, but the difference is how quickly they develop and how bad they are. Dr. Yul Ejnes with the American College of Physicians...
YUL EJNES: The flu usually starts abruptly. You could pretty much tell the doctor when it started. You know, I was fine, and then I wasn't.
NEIGHMOND: A cold, on the other hand, takes a couple of days to build up - a sore throat one day, runny nose the next, eventually, maybe a low-grade fever. But symptoms are relatively minor compared to the high fever over a hundred and one or more, body aches and chills of the flu.
EJNES: Feeling like a truck ran you over or you can't even move a muscle.
NEIGHMOND: Coughing and headaches are also a lot more intense with the flu. If you have these symptoms, Ejnes says it's a good idea to check in with your doctor. Over the phone should be fine if you're an otherwise healthy adult. There's no cure for the flu, but your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help fight it. Dr. Matt Zahn is spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America.
MATT ZAHN: In general, you can get better maybe about one day earlier than you regularly would.
NEIGHMOND: And symptoms may be more mild, which is especially important for people at high risk of complications from the flu. This includes children under 5, whose immune systems are still developing, adults 65 and older, whose immune systems are waning, and people with underlying medical conditions like asthma or lung or heart disease.
ZAHN: It makes you less likely to end up in the hospital. It can make you less likely to be severely ill from that influenza infection.
NEIGHMOND: Of course, the best protection, says Zahn, is the flu vaccine, which significantly decreases complications from flu along with hospitalization and even death. As for a cold, it's a different story. Internist Ejnes...
EJNES: The reality is that there's nothing available that affects the virus, that shortens the duration of the head cold.
NEIGHMOND: The best you can do, he says - over-the-counter remedies that can make you feel a little better - decongestants to relieve cough, nasal sprays to reduce stuffiness, lozenges to help a sore throat.
EJNES: Hot, steamy fluids - you know, bringing in the ever-popular chicken soup also can help you feel better. But basically, you're doing whatever you can do to bare it until it runs its course.
NEIGHMOND: Some colds linger for a few weeks, but most clear up within a week. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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