How to prepare for this year's cold and flu season

Healthy Aging
Woman coughing into her arm and holding thermometer

Whether you're sneezing, coughing or feeling achy, sometimes it's difficult to know what's causing your symptoms. Is it just a pesky cold? Or could it be something more serious?

Getting a flu shot is an important step to take to safeguard everyone's health this winter. "Everyone age six months and older, including pregnant women, should get a flu shot every year, and this year is no different," says Laura Picciano, DO, primary care physician at Main Line Health in Roxborough.

While the flu shot won't protect you from other viruses, like COVID-19, both are contagious respiratory illnesses that can lead to pneumonia, more severe infections and hospitalization.

This winter, sorting through symptoms may seem even more confusing—and stressful. Here's how to prepare for this year's cold and flu season.

How to tell when you have the flu

With similar symptoms ranging from mild to severe, it's easy to mistake the flu for COVID-19. While both are caused by viruses, one of the telltale signs of the flu is that it tends to come on suddenly:

  • Onset: Symptoms develop abruptly.
  • Duration: Less than two weeks.
  • Symptoms: Coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, muscle or body aches, fatigue, fever or chills, vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children).
  • Care tips: Stay at home, rest in bed, drink a lot of fluids and avoid interacting with other people. If you are very sick or have a high risk for flu complications, your health care provider may prescribe an antiviral medication to help ease your symptoms.

How to tell if you have coronavirus

Suspecting you have COVID-19 can be scary. And while there is cause for concern, remember that most cases are mild and don't require any special treatment:

  • Onset: Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.
  • Duration: A few days to a week (for most people).
  • Symptoms: Fever or chills, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headaches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea.
  • Care tips: "Contact your provider right away if you think you were exposed to the coronavirus," says Picciano. "If you have only mild symptoms, stay home in a room or area away from other people. Rest and drink a lot of fluids. See if over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen help you feel better."

Picciano reminds patients that the flu and COVID-19 vaccinations are both cleared to be given at the same time for this season and both are recommended for all eligible patients. If you already have been vaccinated against COVID-19, check in with your primary care doctor to discuss a COVID-19 booster.

How to tell when you have a cold

Compared with the flu and COVID-19, the common cold usually doesn't cause a fever and has milder symptoms:

  • Onset: Symptoms tend to develop slowly.
  • Duration: About seven to 10 days.
  • Symptoms: Runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, slight body aches, headaches.
  • Care tips: Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Taking over-the-counter medicine can help manage your symptoms, too.

Now more than ever, make your health a priority. If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, call your primary care provider.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Save time and reserve your place in line at one of our Main Line Health Urgent Care centers.