January 20, 2020


The 2019/2020 flu season is in full swing, and by all accounts it’s an especially bad season. In Canada, an earlier-than-usual outbreak of Influenza B is sending more children to the hospital than in previous years. On the other hand, most of the recent adult hospitalizations were due to Influenza A. The U.S., too, is seeing higher than normal hospitalizations. And, this flu season shows no signs of slowing down.

But the flu isn’t the only virus making the rounds. Viruses that cause colds are also on the rise, and the symptoms can be very similar to the symptoms of flu. So how do you know if you have a cold or the flu? In general, the flu tends to be much more intense and can lead to complications like sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, and occasionally death. A cold will usually resolve without further complications and really never considered something that could be deadly.

Cold and flu can both cause symptoms like:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • A cough (wet with a cold, dry with the flu)
  • A sore throat
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Headache and body aches (mild with a cold, severe and all over your body with the flu)

But the flu also causes:

  • Nausea (sometimes)
  • Fever
  • Chills and sweating
  • Fast onset symptoms
  • Very intense symptoms

If you’re feeling miserable, you might wonder why it matters whether it’s a cold or the flu. But knowing makes a difference in how you should treat your symptoms.


The most important thing to remember is that you can take measures to prevent both the flu and colds.  For both, you should practice good and frequent hand washing! When you’re out in public and touching things that a lot of other people are touching, try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth.  This is the common process for transmission.  If you do end up with cold or flu germs on your hands, frequent hand washing will help you knock it off and carry on.  Extremely important is to make sure that you get your annual flu shot!  The flu shot is the most effective way to help you avoid the flu all together; if you do get it, it can dramatically reduce the symptoms and their duration. 

If you do get the flu or a cold, the best treatment for both is certainly plenty of rest and fluids as well as over the counter pain relievers if needed. For a cold, that’s often the only treatment available and you normally do not need to see a doctor. But the flu is a different beast.

If you get the flu, you need to realize that flu symptoms can go on for a long time, especially if you have a cough (which can persist for 3-4 weeks or more).  The intensity of flu is much greater than a cold and there are situations when visiting the doctor is a good idea.  Some people should see a doctor right away if they have a higher than average risk for complications, like those with diabetes or heart disease. Children under the age of five and adults over the age of 65 are also at higher risk for more severe outcomes so they need to be monitored carefully.   Consider seeing a doctor if symptoms develop that might indicate a complication, like:

  • Significant fever for more than 3-4 days
  • Coughing that lasts longer than 4 weeks
  • Difficulty breathing

Preventing colds and flu

The best things you can do to protect yourself from catching a cold or the flu are:

  • Try not to expose yourself. Avoid sick people and if you find yourself around sick people, wash your hands with warm water and soap as soon as you remove yourself from their presence.
  • Watch out for the process of germ transmission. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating, before touching your face for any reason, and after touching places where germs tend to hang out - doorknobs, counter tops, grocery cart handles, keypads for credit card payments and a million other places!
  • Support a healthy immune system - get enough sleep. Sleep, food and exercise are the bedrock elements of our good health and we tend to underestimate how important they all are for our general health.
  • Make sure that your body is well fortified from a nutritional point of view. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, and lean protein.
  • If you or your family members are sick, use soap and water to regularly sanitize frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, remote controls, the refrigerator handle, and the toilet.
  • Absolutely don’t miss your flu shot – SUPER IMPORTANT!


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