Is it a Cold, the Flu, or Pneumonia?

Is it a Cold, the Flu, or Pneumonia?

"It's important to know the difference between a common cold, the flu and pneumonia, because mistaking one for the other could result in serious health complications." – Pulmonologist and Critical Care Physician Douglas Mazurek, M.D.

It's a cold.

The common cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract that is caused by a number of different viruses. On average, an adult will have two to four colds a year and children will have four to eight.*

Colds follow a pattern of starting with a scratchy throat and nasal congestion. Gradually other symptoms such as sneezing, a mild sore throat and sometimes coughing and a headache appear.

Dr. Mazurek said it's important for people to realize that antibiotics and antiviral medications won't help "cure" a cold. "The best things to do are get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids and, if the patient wishes, take over-the-counter medication to help relieve the symptoms."

It's the flu.

Flu is caused by the influenza viruses A and B and is easily spread through the air by sneezing and coughing. "Unlike a cold that comes on gradually, a person with the flu will see a sudden onset of symptoms," Dr. Mazurek explained. He continued by saying the symptoms of flu in adults include fever, chills, headache, achy muscles and fatigue.

Until recently, home treatment to relieve the symptoms was the only choice when it came to treating flu.

However, today there are antiviral medications available that may make the symptoms less severe.

These must be taken within two days of the on-set of flu symptoms to be effective.

"People 65 years or older, people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women or children should be seen by their doctor if they think they have the flu," said Dr. Mazurek.

It's pneumonia.

Pneumonia is an infection of the bronchial tubes and tiny air sacs in the lungs, and it is usually caused by a virus or bacteria. Bacterial pneumonia is serious and can be deadly.

People with bacterial pneumonia are very sick. Like the flu, pneumonia symptoms come on very quickly with severe chills and a high fever. Pneumonia most often occurs after a person has had a cold or the flu.

Bacterial pneumonia responds well to treatment with antibiotics and in most cases is a short-term illness.
Those most at risk for developing pneumonia are children younger than four, older adults and people with compromised immune systems.

"Viral pneumonia doesn't respond to antibiotics," Dr. Mazurek said. "However, if you think you have pneumonia, you should call your doctor as soon as you can, so that your condition does not worsen."

When to Seek Treatment

People usually do not need to call a doctor if they catch a cold. However, if symptoms become severe or people develop the following symptoms, the patient may have the flu, pneumonia or another illness that should be reported to the doctor:

  • Shaking chills
  • Profuse sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • High fever (greater than 102 F)

The CDC recommends:

  • Yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and over
  • Pneumococcal (PCV13) to all infants at 2, 4 and 6 months of age followed by a booster dose between 12 and 15 months of age
  • Pneumococcal (PCV13) for previously unvaccinated healthy children between 24 months and 4 years
  • Pneumococcal (PPSV23) for adults 65 years and older or for persons age 19 to 64 years who have other risk factors

Join Pulmonlogist and Critical Care Physician Dr. Douglas Mazurek for a free community wellness presentation "Cold ...Flu ...Pneumonia? When to Seek Treatment for Upper Respiratory Infections" at 6 p.m. on November 4, 2014 at Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso. For more details, click here.

*Source: American Lung Association