Could that tickle in the back of your throat mean you are coming down with the flu or is it just a common cold? Early symptoms of a cold or the flu can be very similar, and include congestion, fatigue and cough. Flu symptoms are usually much more severe and often include fever and body aches, which are less common with a cold.
“I’ve had people tell me that they’ve had the flu and it wasn’t that bad,” says Mark Shalauta, MD, a family medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic. “Those people probably didn’t have influenza. It feels like you’ve been hit by a bus and once you’ve had it, you know how different it is from a cold.”
While flu symptoms may be severe, they do not usually include vomiting and diarrhea. These are more often a sign of gastroenteritis, which can be caused by several things including viruses, bacteria and parasites.
“The stomach flu is not influenza,” notes Dr. Shalauta. “It’s a separate illness that can be spread through food, coming into contact with an infected person, and infrequent hand washing.”
Most people recover on their own from influenza, but for young children, adults older than 65 and people with chronic health conditions, the flu can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening complications. Getting a flu shot is one of the best ways help prevent catching and spreading the flu. Physicians recommend anyone age 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine each year as soon as it becomes available, which is typically in the fall from September to November.
“When my patients are skeptical about getting the vaccine, I remind them that it’s still the best protection we have,” notes Dr. Shalauta. “It takes about two weeks for the vaccination to build up enough antibodies for it to be effective.”
The flu vaccine comes in an injection or nasal spray. Children younger than 9 years old who have never had vaccine will need to receive two doses spaced a month apart.
While the flu shot is important for preventing the spread of the flu, it does not provide immunity from a cold or the “stomach flu.” Taking proper precautions including frequent and thorough hand washing can help prevent the spread of colds, the flu and the stomach flu.
Check out our flu infographic below to learn more about the flu.
Download the flu infographic. (PDF, 1.7 MB)