I’m a Pharmacist and This Is the Number 1 Misconception People Have About Cold and Flu Season

Photo: Getty Images/Roos Koole
Every year during cold and flu seasonEdith Mirzaian, PharmD, the associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California, finds herself setting the record straight—a lot. There are certain myths about colds and flus that never seem to go away, sticking around way longer than the actual viruses themselves.

Of all the misconceptions Mirzaian hears year after year, there's one in particular she's confronted with day in and day out: Not knowing the difference between cold and flu. "Often someone will say that they have the flu when actually it's a bad cold," she says.

It's easy to confuse the two: After all, they're both viruses. But Mirzaian says it's important to know the difference because of one major aspect of prevention.

What is the difference between cold and flu?

Though they are both viruses, Mirzaian says there are some key differences between cold and flu, starting with the symptoms. "A cold comes on more gradually in the span of five to seven days, where you'll start feeling the symptoms of the flu in a matter of hours," she says.

If you're getting a cold, Mirzaian says the symptoms typically start with waking up with a scratchy throat or your head feeling heavy. The next day you may have a runny nose and start sneezing. And by the third or fourth day, congestion may start to develop. "With the flu, people tend to experience symptoms more immediately, which typically are a headache, fever, and chills, which are caused by the fever," she says.

"Another difference is that with a cold, it's typically contained to the head and throat, but with a flu, your whole body can ache," Mirzaian adds. "Those muscle aches can get pretty bad to the point where you really need to be in bed resting and are unable to function."

Either way, not fun, right? Fortunately, Mirzaian has some tips on how to best protect yourself from both.

Okay, so they're definitely different. Why does that matter?

In both cases, Mirzaian preaches the importance of something we've all been hearing since kindergarten: wash your hands. Like, a lot. "Most people know to wash their hands after using the restroom or before they eat, but viruses can live on surfaces, so it's smart to wash your hands periodically throughout the day, too," she says. Doing so will lower your odds of contracting both.

But there's one major difference between protecting yourself from a cold and protecting yourself from the flu."There isn't a cure for the common cold, or a vaccine, but there is a vaccine for the flu," Mirzaian says. This touches on another misconception Mirzaian finds herself correcting year after year—the idea that getting a flu vaccine will give you the flu and not protect you from it. "This is the opposite of what's true," she says. "If you don't want to get the flu, get a flu shot."

Even if you're a healthy person, Mirzaian says it's still important to protect yourself in this way to avoid spreading the virus to babies or the elderly. Both populations are vulnerable to the flu and have a risk of dying from it. "I don't want to take away from the seriousness of the coronavirus by any means, but people should also know that the flu has caused more deaths every year," she says.

Check out the video below for more on how to boost your immunity using food:

Because the flu is especially dangerous for vulnerable populations, Mirzaian recommends getting treated for it as soon as you can to avoid spreading it to others. Both the cold and flu can go away on their own, but she says a prescription (such as Tamiflu for the flu) can cause the symptoms to go away faster.

Just don't ask for antibiotics if you have a cold. "Another misconception people have with seeking treatment for a cold is that antibiotics will help," Mirzaian says. "This is false because antibiotics fight bacteria and the cold is a virus."

If you do have a cold, Mirzaian recommends talking to your local pharmacist, who can recommend over-the-counter options based on the symptoms you have. "Talk to your pharmacist because they know what you need," she says.

Another important tip to staying healthy: getting enough sleep. Plus, five yoga poses that may help, too.

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