7 Times You Think You Have the Flu—but Don’t
When those nasty symptoms set in, they might signal the flu—or something else entirely. Here’s how to tell the difference.
It’s the sick season
Flu season is here, triggering memories of the last year’s severe season. Especially for vulnerable people like children, the elderly, and those with lung ailments such as asthma and cystic fibrosis, classic flu symptoms including a sudden fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and a dry cough can be cause for worry. But not every flu-like symptom signals the flu. Many other illnesses can prompt the same symptoms, says Sean Cloonan, MD, an internist and infectious disease specialist at Scarsdale Medical Group. Here’s a rundown of seven copycat conditions that could make you think you have the flu.
The common cold can also bring on a cough and fatigue, but it’s caused by different viruses from those that bring on flu, says Dr. Cloonan. The flu tends to be more intense than a cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—though a cold typically lasts longer (seven to ten days versus three to five days for the flu); you’ll also get a stuffy or runny nose as well. These are the textbook scenarios, says Dr. Cloonan, “but real life doesn’t always follow a textbook, and someone who seems to have a cold can actually be fighting off influenza.” The only way to definitively tell the difference is to be tested for the flu. Don’t miss these 50 ways to avoid catching a cold this season.
You’ll also get a fever and a general feeling of malaise with strep, says Dr. Cloonan. But the intense pain in your throat along with redness and, sometimes, white spots on your tonsils distinguish this infection from the flu. “Many viruses that cause the common cold can cause strep throat as well,” says Dr. Cloonan. If you think you may have strep throat, see your doctor for testing and, if it’s positive, a prescription for antibiotics. Check out these strep throat symptoms you should never ignore.
“Mono can mimic the flu, although there’s no seasonality to it,” says Dr. Cloonan. Caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, the illness usually brings on a fever, fatigue, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck and other parts of the body; nearly nine out of 10 people will get sick with this virus at some point in their life. “The younger you are when you’re exposed to it, the less sick you tend to get,” he says. “You may not know a young child has it because kids are sick so often and the illness may not be severe.” Catch mono as a teenager or an adult, and you’ll really know it—they symptoms will lay you low. “You don’t see many adults with mono because most of us have had it already.” Be sure you know the 11 silent signs of mono.
Respiratory syncytial virus—RSV—is an infection of the respiratory tract that may seem like a cold or the flu that’s easily spread through coughing and sneezing. Symptoms include fever, nasal congestion, a barking cough, difficulty breathing, and lethargy. “The virus causes the most trouble for very young children in the first year of life,” warns Dr. Cloonan. Call a doctor immediately if children exhibit these symptoms.
“Influenza is dangerous, but the flu itself almost never kills anyone,” says Dr. Cloonan. What does is a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia—it can accompany the flu. A common scenario: Someone who has the flu starts to feel better, but then a second wave hits. “That’s bacterial pneumonia,” says Dr. Cloonan. “If the fever goes away and comes back, you should be concerned that pneumonia happened after the flu has run its course.” In addition to fever, symptoms include a cough that starts out dry and progresses to wet, often with blood or mucus. See your doctor immediately, Dr. Cloonan advises—”You will probably need antibiotics.” Viral pneumonia can also occur separately from the flu. This version is usually milder than bacterial pneumonia, with symptoms like a cough, congestion, and fatigue. Don’t miss these 7 signs your upper respiratory infection is actually pneumonia.
This inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord can be caused by a virus or bacteria, according to the CDC. Both have symptoms similar to the flu, including fever and fatigue, but meningitis also causes a stiff neck and sensitivity to bright light. The viral form is less severe, and people who get it often recover on their own. Bacterial meningitis, however, can be deadly and requires immediate medical attention.
This illness not only looks and feels like the flu—with coughing, lethargy, a sore throat, and sometimes a low fever—but is caused by many of the same viruses, according to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. The difference is that it targets the chest and throat rather than triggering full-body aches, and the cough can last up to three weeks and sometimes longer. There’s no test for bronchitis, but doctors can diagnose it through a physical exam. A doctor may also order a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia.
When to call a doctor
“When you are hit with a sudden fever or a cough that feels really bad, contact your doctor,” says Dr. Cloonan. Time is of the essence, he says, because if you do have the flu and are prescribed medication such as Tamiflu, it will work only if you begin taking it within 48 hours of the first symptoms. If you don’t have the flu, your doctor can diagnose what you do have and recommend a course of treatment. Check out these 13 household items that increase your risk for colds and flu.
The importance of the flu shot
“The influenza vaccine isn’t perfect, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” says Dr. Cloonan. “Other than washing your hands and not exposing yourself to people who are sick, the shot is the best way to lower your risk and also lessens symptoms if you do get the flu.” The CDC recommends a flu vaccine every year for everyone over the age of six months of age; taking this measure can significantly reduce the risk of a child dying from the flu. Dr. Clooney adds that people over the age of 65 and anyone with chronic medical problems such as diabetes and chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder should also receive the pneumococcal vaccine. Next, find out the things you shouldn’t do if you do have the flu.