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Flu or cold? ER patients often misread symptoms

January 13, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
The flu epidemic is keeping emergency rooms busy but doctors say many people are coming in with a cold, not the flu.

The flu bug is making its rounds in Southern California as is always the case during winter months. It's been extremely cold lately, and the two go hand in hand. But when you wake up sneezing and coughing and have that achy, feverish feeling, how do you know whether you have cold symptoms and not the flu?

"Sometimes it's hard to tell, but often you have to listen to the lungs and you have to hook people up to a monitor to see what their oxygen level is," explained Dr. Steven Jones, the emergency room director of Northridge Hospital.

Recently, Jones' department has seen an increase in the number of patients complaining of respiratory issues.

"I think the main thing that patients have to watch out for is really the troubled breathing. If you feel like you can't get enough air, just not breathing adequately, that's the time to go to the emergency room," Jones said.

It's important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms. A cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu.

"Influenza typically presents with a rather rapid onset of symptoms. You feel like you got hit by a train - achy all over, high fever," Jones explained.

Doctors recommend you get the flu vaccine, especially if you're older or spend a lot of time around children, before the flu season begins. But it's not too late.

"The flu will still be around, well into January, well into February. We'll even see some cases in March," Jones said.

It takes two weeks for the vaccine to work, so the sooner the better. Once you have the flu it's too late.

If you're thinking about getting a flu shot, most pharmacies still offer them for a small fee. Many county clinics offer them for free.


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