Your child comes home from school complaining of a sore throat, fever, chills, and difficulty swallowing. The only thing you know for sure is tomorrow is going to be a “sick day” for her. But is it a common cold, strep throat, or the flu? How do you know? Here are some clues to help you differentiate between the three.
The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). Even though colds make you feel miserable, they are usually harmless. Many types of viruses can cause a common cold. Symptoms of a common cold vary from person to person but usually include:
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Sore throat.
- Slight body aches or a mild headache.
- Low-grade fever.
- Generally feeling unwell (malaise).
Although many types of viruses can cause a common cold, rhinoviruses are the most common. It’s important to remember that colds are viral infections, so don’t expect your doctor to prescribe antibiotics, even when the discharge from your nose becomes thicker and yellow or green in color. This isn’t an indication of a bacterial infection but rather, that your cold is running its course.
Influenza (the “flu”) is a viral infection that is usually caused by influenza viruses A and B. There are different strains of the flu virus every year.
The flu causes fever, body aches, a headache, dry cough, and a sore or dry throat. You will probably feel tired and less hungry than usual. The symptoms usually are the worst for the first three to four days, but it can take up to two weeks to finally feel like yourself again.
Most people get better without problems. But sometimes the flu can lead to ear infections, sinus infections, or bronchitis. Less often, the flu may cause a more serious problem, such as pneumonia. Certain people are at higher risk of complications from the flu. They include young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with long-term illnesses or with impaired immune systems. The flu of 2017-18 was especially fierce, knocking even younger healthy people off their feet for weeks at a time.
Strep throat is caused by the group A Streptococcus bacterium and, unlike the common cold or the flu, is treatable with antibiotics. While it will be necessary to visit a doctor to get a definitive diagnosis of strep throat, here are some signs to watch out for:
- Swollen Red Tonsils: This is the most common symptom of strep throat. The child’s tonsils will appear bright red, and flecked with white specks, or pus.
- Fever: Above 101 degrees Fahrenheit
- Soreness and swelling of glands just under the jaw
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sore throat
- Stomach ache
- Red Rough Rash: This is Scarlet Fever, and it will go away once the strep infection is treated with antibiotics.
In addition to the above symptoms, strep in babies and toddlers may present with:
- Thickened or bloody nasal discharge
- Lack of appetite
- Swollen neck glands
- Toddlers may develop a stomach ache rather than a sore throat.
- Babies and Toddlers are both at risk for developing the red rash of Scarlet Fever.
It’s possible for you or your child to have many of these symptoms but not have strep throat. That’s why your doctor generally tests specifically for strep throat.
When in Doubt, Call Your Doctor
Because the symptoms of the common cold, strep throat, and the flu are similar, it may be hard to differentiate between the three. Your best bet is to seek out medical attention as soon as possible, especially if you are in a high-risk group or if your symptoms have been getting worse with previous medical or routine care.
The Children’s Health Care of Massachusetts (CHC Mass) is your family’s partner in health, providing compassionate and personalized care for your whole child. Contact The CHC location nearest you for information about how you can partner with CHC to help your child achieve the healthiest childhood possible.