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Living Well

Beat Colds and Flu This Winter

Last updated: Feb 01, 2016

If you’re feeling feverish and achy this winter, you may well have a common cold or influenza.  But how can you tell them apart?  Knowing exactly what is ailing you is important because common colds and flu, caused by different viruses—vary in their severity and treatment recommendations.  Differentiating between these winter bugs can be a challenge, so it’s important to get a handle on cold and flu facts, and understand how to care for yourself and your children.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are some key differences between the common cold and the flu. (1)

  • Colds are usually less severe than the flu, which has more intense symptoms, such as body aches, fever, and exhaustion.
  • Flu usually causes dry coughs
  • Colds cause runny and stuffy noses. 
  • Flu results in serious illness far more often than colds do.  People with the flu are more likely to acquire pneumonia or bacterial infections that require hospitalization.
  • Flu presents a greater danger in general, but especially to two vulnerable populations: young children and the elderly.

In addition, flu season is different every year.  According to Sweeti Mehra, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Summit Medical Group, there are many strains of the influenza virus, and the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) try to match the virus strains to the vaccine every year. Essentially, the vaccine is a prediction of what that season’s flu virus will be.  It’s important to have a flu vaccine every year though because even if you do wind up contracting the flu, the vaccine can still be of benefit because it helps the severity and duration of the symptoms. (2)

“The symptoms of a flu and a cold can definitely be very similar, especially in the beginning,” says Dr. Mehra.  “The virus can incubate in your body for 3-5 days before you actually even get symptoms.  Some people get very mild symptoms those days.  With the flu, usually you’ll have a develop high fever, a sore throat or a cough.  Other common symptoms are headaches, fatigue and muscle aches and pains.  These are all uncomfortable and last about seven days.” 

Dr. Mehra recommends that people thinking they have the flu should see their physician within 48 hours of the symptoms starting.

“That’s the best time to start Tamiflu,” she says

Tamiflu is an antiviral medication that reduces the severity and duration of flu symptoms of some patients, and can even prevent flu onset. According to Dr. Mehra, doesn’t work in all patients, but it is an option and you should talk to your doctor about it.

Winter Sickness and Children

Michelle Bender, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician at Summit Medical Group, says that young children spread more germs than adults do and can get sick more easily than older kids and adults. (3)

“Younger kids tend to put their hands in their eyes, nose and mouth frequently and they tend to mouth objects and share their secretions with other kids sitting next to them,” says Dr. Bender. “They also have more colds than adults, so their mucous membranes are disrupted and then they are more susceptible to getting another cold or a secondary virus or infection.

She cautions against using antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections, to treat a viral infection.

“As pediatricians, our responsibility is to really use antibiotics only when there is a bacterial infection,” Dr. Bender says.  “We do look for certain types of secondary infections, meaning that you start out with a virus but over time another infection develops--like an ear infection or a bronchial infection, for example, a pneumonia.  Those are conditions we usually do treat with antibiotics—but not colds.

Dr. Bender also recommends trying natural cold remedies instead of over-the-counter medications. These include:

  • Honey instead of cough medicine for coughs.
  • Essential oils like eucalyptus or peppermint.  A few drops can be put into a mister to ease stuffy noses—but never apply them directly to mucus membranes.

“As far as Vitamins C and D, they are not harmful, so I think that’s a reasonable approach.  There are mixed studies on that, so it may help you but it may not. It probably won’t hurt you,” she says.

When should you keep a child out of school.  Dr. Bender offers these guidelines.  Kids need to stay home if:

  • They have fever over 100.5.
  • If they seem very uncomfortable and cranky.

“If every child with a runny nose stayed out of school, they’d be home all winter,” she says.

For more information about diagnosing colds and flu correctly, and beating winter sickness blues, listen to podcast interviews with Dr. Mehra and Dr. Bender on SMG Radio.


1. Centers for, Disease Control. "Cold Versus Flu." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

2. Mehra, Sweeti, MD. "This Year's Flu Virus." Interview. Audio blog post. SMG Radio. Summit Medical Group, 09 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.

3. Bender, Michelle, MD. "Germs, Colds and Fevers: Prevention and Treatment Tips." Interview. Audio blog post. SMG Radio. Summit Medical Group, 11 Oct. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.