"We often use the terms cold and flu interchangeably. But they are completely distinct illnesses with their own set of symptoms. The differences can actually be picked up right away," Dr. Holly Phillips, CBS medical contributor, said on "CBS This Morning."
It's important to know the difference because while colds can be annoying, "they tend not to be very serious," she said, but the flu can be dangerous.
"The flu causes more than 24,000 deaths a year and about 200,000 hospitalizations, sometimes more," Phillips told CBS.
Getting a flu shot is the most effective way to protect yourself and others from getting the flu, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC recommends a flu shot for every American age 6 months and older. And because the majority of Americans who die from the flu are seniors who develop complications like pneumonia, it is especially important for those 60 and older to flu shot.
As for treatment, Phillips says that first and foremost, the cold and flu are both caused by viruses and should not be treated with antibiotics, which are only effective against bacterial diseases. She also notes that overuse of antibiotics leads to the development of dangerous antibiotic resistance.
The flu, however, can be treated with antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu and Relenza, which are available only with a prescription and must be taken within two days of the onset of illness. These drugs will shorten the course of the illness and the severity of the symptoms, she said. Doctors' offices now carry test kits that are 99 percent accurate to determine whether it is the flu or a cold.
Otherwise, over-the-counter medications are available to treat symptoms for both colds and flu, she said.
Unfortunately, people are contagious within 24 to 72 hours of being infected with the flu, often before they feel sick, and remain contagious for at least 24 hours after their fever is gone, Dr. Paul Pedersen, a family medicine physician, writes for the Herald-Leader. But, he says, it is still important to use common-sense practices to protect yourself and others,
In general, he writes: make sure to use a tissue or handkerchief or cough into your elbow rather than your hand; wash your hands frequently with soap and water, but carry hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol for times when this is not possible; stay at home if you think you are getting sick, or isolate yourself from others at work if you can't stay home; avoid crowds as much as possible during cold and flu season; and avoid sharing plates, glasses, utensils or even keyboards during the cold and flu season.