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Bitten by the Bug : The Flu? A Cold? It Can Take a Day to Tell What Ails You


You're surprised by a sniffle or maybe nonstop sneezes.

Then your head starts to ache.

And you're sooooooo tired.

You know you're coming down with something, but you're not quite sure what. Is it a cold? Or the flu?

Patience, say the experts, is the key to finding out what ails you.

In the first 24 hours after the onset of symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose yourself, says Peter Chee, chairman of the Cold and Flu Task Force at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Los Angeles.

The symptoms of a cold--a viral infection that causes inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose and throat--can be a lot like the symptoms of influenza--a viral infection of the air passages that causes fever, headache and, often, overall achiness.

Sniffles, malaise and fatigue are possible with both colds and flu, Chee says. With colds, he adds, there usually is more sneezing but little or no fever. With influenza, you're more likely to have a fever than a runny nose. But these aren't hard-and-fast rules.

"A cold virus can be a bad enough actor to mimic the flu," says Robert Murray, an epidemiologist with the infectious disease branch of the California Department of Health Services at Berkeley.

For do-it-yourself diagnosticians, he offers these clues: "Influenza typically begins with a sudden onset. There is fever, headache, sore throat and malaise--you feel really sick."

With influenza, you usually feel sicker than with a cold, experts agree.

Within 48 hours, you'll probably be able to pinpoint which you have.

Of course, you could be unlucky enough to have both a cold and the flu, Chee acknowledges, but that's not common.

Once you know what ails you, what should you do?

Treat the symptoms, Chee tells patients. Often self-care is all you need: bed rest and mild painkillers for flu; bed rest, painkillers and decongestants for colds. But if you're elderly or have a chronic illness, checking in with the doctor is probably a good idea.

Just don't plead for antibiotics. Antibiotics fight bacterial infections, Chee says. They are of no use for colds and influenza, both caused by viruses.

Another common misconception is to lump all sorts of illnesses under the term flu . Stomach flu, for instance, is a misnomer, says Chee. It is actually viral gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by a virus.

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