Stop Blaming Every Winter Sniffle On The Flu

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
You have a tickle in your throat, your nose is never not running, and every couple hours you feel like you need to hack up a lung. You're getting sick — and, at this time of year, that can only mean one thing, right? Surely, you have the flu.
But not so fast. Before resigning yourself to a week of bedrest, and bemoaning your early-fall optimism when you decided against the flu shot, take a closer look at your symptoms. Not every single illness that befalls you in the colder months is the flu. In fact, it's pretty easy to identify what you're dealing with. According to Judy Tung, MD, of New York Presbyterian, there's a clear line between a cold and the flu. Whereas both conditions have such symptoms as a sore throat, cough, and congestion in common, the latter is much more of a whole-body experience. With the flu, you'll probably run a fever and, almost immediately, your whole body will hurt. (Dr. Tung says her flu patients will often compare their body aches to being hit with a bat.)
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So, if you're up and walking around without feeling uncomfortable, you're probably stuck with the common cold. It's no picnic, but it's not the flu, either.
That isn't where the flu's case of mistaken identity ends, however. Dr. Tung tells us that "the stomach flu," which normally refers to a case of vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, is just another term for viral gastroenteritis, or a viral infection of the intestinal tract.
Doctors may call a nasty GI infection the "stomach flu" to draw a clear distinction between infections and food poisoning, but no flu shot will prevent against it. "It's a misnomer," Dr. Tung says. "It actually has nothing to do with influenza." She adds that the only gastrointestinal discomfort that may accompany the flu arises after you swallow your own saliva (and any particles of influenza bacteria that happen to be in it). Let's just say, any time you ingest a lot of phlegm it could give you a little bit of stomach upset, but is not going to leave you clutching the toilet bowl.
Now that you've narrowed down your options and can confidently say you're dealing with the bonafide flu, it's time to act. Dr. Tung stresses the importance of calling your doctor as soon as you think your symptoms are serious enough that you can't tough it out at home: If your fever is creeping higher than 101, call your doctor. If you're extremely achy, call your doctor. If your immune system is already compromised due to another health condition, call your doctor.
Once you drag yourself in for a visit, your doctor will likely prescribe an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, as long as you call them early enough. This is quickest form of treatment, but Dr. Tung says the window of opportunity for it to be effective is in the earliest stages of the illness. Additionally, your doctor will recommend you get plenty of rest, and stay hydrated (especially if you're running a fever). Incidentally, these are great ideas even if you're just dealing with a cold.
As we properly enter this year's flu season, bear in mind there are other illnesses out there you could catch — but don't dismiss any symptoms that feel like red flags. If you need us, we'll be washing our hands and doubling our bulk tissue order.
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