Reston Hospital Center - October 25, 2018

You feel sick to your stomach. You’re sneezing, coughing, achy, feverish, and downright miserable. So do you have a cold, the regular flu, or the stomach flu? There are big differences between all three, and each requires its own treatment approach. Learn the ways to identify which illness you may or may not have, and a few tips for how to best combat each.

Recognizing and treating the common cold

A number of different viruses can cause the common cold. Symptoms usually last a week and include a sore throat, runny nose, congestion, and cough. Fever is less common and usually mild in adults (children are more likely to have a fever). While you are sick, there are several things you can do to help you feel better.

  • Keep your body hydrated with water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon water with honey.
  • Your body becomes fatigued. Give it rest.
  • Soothe your throat by gargling with saltwater.
  • Relieve nasal stuffiness with over-the-counter saline drops and sprays.
  • Take a pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve any fever, aches, or pains.
  • Help prevent the spread of germs by washing your hands, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoid touching your face.

Combatting the flu

Influenza (also known as the flu) is a respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. Symptoms appear suddenly and include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, aches, headaches, and fatigue. Most people who get the flu will recover in several days to a week. Here are several things you can do to help your body fight the flu.

  • Bed rest is essential to allow your body to combat the illness.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain relievers can also help ease symptoms.
  • An annual vaccine can aid in preventing the flu and help limit complications.

Identifying and fighting the stomach flu

Unlike influenza, which is caused by a virus, the stomach flu is actually gastroenteritis, a condition in which the stomach and intestines are inflamed and irritated. This condition is spread easily from person-to-person. Symptoms include stomach pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Unlike influenza, gastroenteritis can be treated with antibiotics. Here are a few things you can do to help in treating the stomach flu.

  • Drink plenty of clear fluids, including liquids with electrolytes.
  • Take over-the-counter medications for relief from diarrhea.
  • Rest so your body has time to recover.
  • The best way to keep the stomach flu from spreading or coming back is to avoid contaminated food and water. Hand washing is also important as it helps in preventing the spread of infection.

High risk populations

The flu virus is very common and does not normally require a visit to the ER; however, for high-risk populations it can be very serious. These populations include:

  • Infants
  • People over the age of 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain diseases, such as asthma or COPD
  • People with weakened or compromised immune systems

When to go to the ER

Signs that you should go to the ER with the flu include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Vomiting uncontrollably to the point of severe dehydration
  • If you develop complications such as pneumonia

If you think you have a cold, flu, or the stomach flu and it has taken a turn for the worse, check out our ER wait times.