Flu or Cold? Knowing the difference between them could save your life
by sue doherty
We're all aware that an extraordinary level of sickness is doing the rounds this winter. Between colds, flu, swine flu and chest infections, it seems that every other person has been out of commission for at least a few weeks.
During the last week too, experts were predicting that the numbers would increase, as children returned to school after the Christmas holidays. But how do you know whether you've actually got the flu or just have a bad cold? Is it time to go to the doctor, or just take to your sickbed with some over the counter remedies? We spoke to one young woman from Letterkenny about just how dangerous her bout of swine flu was. And we asked the experts to give us a simple checklist to help us know when it's time to pick up the phone or visit the surgery.
Anne (not her real name) is a professional designer in her twenties. She's been sick with swine flu for the past two weeks. During her illness, Anne stopped breathing once and her temperature twice rocketed up to 41c (104F).
"I was out with friends on the Tuesday after Christmas, when I just started feeling very unwell. Literally, within ten minutes, I knew I was quite sick.
"I didn't want to go to the doctor, so I just went home, took some tablets and went to bed. About 24 hours later, my temperature went up to 41. Plus, for those 24 hours, I wasn't able to break a sweat, even though I had such a fever. I felt like my skin was going to burst, there was so much pressure.
"I knew I would probably need some kind of help but still didn't want to go to the doctor. I asked some friends and family what I should do. They all told me to ring NoWDoc straightaway. When I said to the NoWDoc person that my temperature was 41 she said just get in the car and go now. The doctor told me that I had flu and prescribed antibiotics.
"For about three days, I simply could not move. My whole body was sore, even my skin. I didn't sweat for the first 24 hours, but after that, whenever I slept, which seemed to be all the time, I was sweating so much.
"By New Year's Eve, I was feeling a bit better but then on January 2nd I got sick again. My temperature went back up to 41 and we had to call the NoWDoc. I was so weak and sore that they couldn't even take me out of the house, the doctor had to come to me. He said it was Swine Flu.
"I didn't have too much by way of the sniffles or anything like that but I had this cough that just would not go away. I couldn't catch my breath and at one stage I actually stopped breathing. That was in the morning, when I woke up. It was like having an asthma attack. I was coughing out but I wasn't able to breathe back in again and, to be honest, it was the kind of thing that made me pretty panicky. All the more so because I was alone at my house in Buncrana. Fortunately, I concentrated on calming myself down. I took tiny, tiny breaths and eventually it passed. I went to my GP straight after that and then back to Letterkenny to stay with my family for a while.
"The main thing the doctors kept saying to me all through it was to take plenty of paracetamol.
On the day I was due to go back to work, Wednesday, January 5th, I went to my own GP. I told her NoWDoc had said it was swine flu. She asked me was it the worst thing I ever had and I said yes. She told me that yes, it was most likely swine flu then. Those were the two of the longest weeks of my life, it was terrible. I'm still on antibiotics today, but I feel so much better."
Do you have a cold or the flu?
A spokesperson for the HSE gives some useful advice on telling the difference between flu and cold.
"Flu is an acute respiratory illness, which usually causes high fever, severe weakness and fatigue. It makes you feel very sick, more than a normal cold. The flu virus can spread quickly from person to person through tiny drops in coughs and sneezes. If you are close to a person with flu, you can breathe them in and become infected. Droplets can also be passed from surfaces like door handles and hand rails.
"It can be difficult at times to distinguish between the common cold and influenza. The main difference is that the symptoms of influenza come on rapidly and are typically accompanied by muscle aches and a fever.
"First of all you need to check the symptoms you are having. Flu begins very suddenly, within a few hours of feeling well. The symptoms include: a fever of 38C or 100.4F that begins very suddenly; severe tiredness; a cough; a sore throat; muscle aches and pains; a runny nose; a headache. Some people also have vomiting and diarrhoea. If you have a fever, are severely tired or weak and have these other symptoms, you are likely to have the flu.
"The common cold has a more gradual onset and is associated with a runny nose and sneezing.
slow onset: fever - rare;
headache - rare;
general aches and pains - rare;
fatigue, weakness - quite mild;
extreme exhaustion- never;
runny nose - common;
sneezing - usual;
sore throat - common;
cough - mild to moderate hacking cough;
vomiting/diarrhoea- not associated with the common cold in adults.