Is it a Cold or the Flu?

By: Paula Phillips-Hastay

hastay-01Colds and the flu are common illnesses during the winter months, especially among children. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are key differences between a cold and the flu. It’s important to understand the contrasting symptoms of each to help decide when it’s time to take your child to your health care provider.

The main difference between the cold and flu is the location of the problem. Colds are generally centered in the nose, which is why people often use the term “head cold.” Children with a cold typically experience a runny nose, nasal congestion and sneezing. Nasal discharge can be yellow or green with a cold, but this is not usually reason for alarm. Instead, this signals the body’s attempt to get rid of the virus. Colds usually last for about a week and are contagious. If the symptoms last longer this could be a sign of another problem such as allergies or a sinus infection. On average, a child may get a cold up to eight times a year.

In contrast to colds, the flu makes people feel sick all over. The most common symptoms include fever, body aches, a flushed face, chills, headaches and fatigue. After a couple of days, the body aches tend to subside and respiratory symptoms, such as a cough or sore throat, become more noticeable. Parents should be careful to monitor their child’s respiratory symptoms because they can lead to more serious problems such as bronchitis or pneumonia. The flu’s worst part usually lasts for up to four days, though respiratory symptoms may linger up to 10 days. Because the flu can lead to more serious illnesses, it’s important to call your healthcare provider if your child’s symptoms do not improve or get worse.

Home treatment typically works well for both the cold and the flu.

  • Administering salt water drops in the nostrils to relieve nasal congestion;
  • Using a steamy humidifier for stuffy noses or a cool-mist humidifier can help a scratchy throat, stuffy nose and itchy eyes;
  • Placing petroleum jelly on the skin under the nose to soothe rawness;
  • Eating a balanced diet and increasing fluid intake;
  • Increasing the amount of rest your child gets.

To help reduce the chances of your child getting a cold or the flu this season, teach him or her to pay special attention to hygiene, specifically:

  • Washing hands often and thoroughly with soap;
  • Turn away from people when you sneeze or cough;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
  • Stay away from people with a cold or flu; and
  • Avoid large crowds if possible.

Also, the AAP recommends all children over 6 months of age get a yearly flu vaccine. For more information about preventing or treating a cold or the flu, contact your pediatrician or pediatric nurse practitioner.