What to do When You Get Sick

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Sometimes, despite your best efforts,  getting sick is unavoidable. When you’re feeling under the weather, it’s best to know understand your symptoms to identify exactly what type of illness you have in order to properly treat it.

Cold vs. Flu Symptoms

Cold symptoms start up gradually and last about a week, while the flu starts suddenly and dramatically and can last up to two weeks.  Swine flu shares characteristics with other influenza strains, although some people have also reported diarrhea and vomiting.

This chart shows the symptoms that differentiate colds from the flu.

Cold and Flu Symptoms

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Rare Common but not always; high (102-104°F); lasts 3-4 days
Headache Rare Almost always present
General aches and pains Mild Often severe
Fatigue, exhaustion, and weakness Mild Extreme exhaustion is early and severe. Fatigue and weakness can last two to three weeks
Stuffy nose Nearly always Sometimes
Sneezing Very common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort and cough Mild to moderate, hacking cough Common, can be severe


Drinking hot tea might make you feel better

Regardless of whether you have a cold or the flu, there isn’t much you can do except rest, drink plenty of fluids especially if you have a fever, take aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) for the headache, muscle aches and fever, wait it out, and stay away from other people as much as possible.


Coughing, a sore throat and chills are often mistaken for the common cold or flu. However, there are several serious other illnesses which you might mistake based on these symptoms:


Meningitis (meningococcal disease) is a potentially fatal bacterial infection. You can be vaccinated against it, and many schools require their incoming students to provide proof that they have been vaccinated. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control recommend that all college students be vaccinated.  If you have not been vaccinated, or if you do not know, contact your school’s health clinic.

The main symptom that differentiates meningitis from other much more common illnesses is a STIFF NECK – so if you have a stiff neck along with other flu-like symptoms, VISIT THE CLINIC OR SEE YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY.


Mononucleosis (mono or the “kissing disease”) feels like a cold that is NEVER going away. You have had cold or mild flu symptoms – fever, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and loss of appetite – for over a week and you are not feeling any better. You might want to visit your clinic for a “Monospot” blood test.

Mono is treated the same way as a cold or flu – with rest, plenty of fluids, pain relievers/fever reducers, and time. Unfortunately, it can take up to a month or more for mono to run its course, and you may have to make special arrangements with your professors or even withdraw for the semester depending on the severity and timing of symptoms.

Strep Throat

If you think you have a cold or the flu but your main symptom is a severe sore throat, you might have strep throat.  Unlike the flu or a cold, strep throat is caused by bacteria – streptococcus – which can be treated IF it is diagnosed by a doctor.

If your throat is very sore for longer than 48 hours, or if it is beefy-red and swollen, you should see a doctor, who will probably do a rapid strep antigen test on a throat sample.  This test is accurate with a positive result, but 10%-20% of the time it can read a false negative. If your test is negative, the doctor may do a throat culture, where a sample is sent to the lab and the results are returned in 24 to 48 hours.

Strep throat is usually treated with a 10-day course of antibiotics. You may start to feel better within 24 to 36 hours of taking medicine. It is very important that you finish the entire course of medication! If you don’t the remaining bacteria in your body may develop a resistance to the medicine, and the medication will be less effective the next time you use it. 

Intestinal Virus

Sometimes called the stomach flu, this virus is characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea along with the same weakness and general sick feeling you get when you have the ordinary flu or a cold. A stomach flu usually doesn’t last longer than one to three days; if it persists longer visit a doctor to avoid dehydration.

For nausea and vomiting

  • Don’t eat or drink anything for two to four hours, and then gradually introduce small amounts of water and other clear liquids such as flat 7-Up, Jell-O or sport drinks.
    • Acidic drinks such as orange juice
    • Caffeinated beverages
    • Milk
  • Drink only very small amounts of these liquids at a time – a sip or two – but take them every 10 minutes or so as long as you don’t vomit.
  • If you do vomit after drinking, rest your stomach for another two to four hours and start again.
  • Once you have not vomited for several hours and are able to drink clear liquids without nausea, you may eat something. Saltine crackers are a good first choice.
  • If you have diarrhea only, you do not need to restrict your diet. Take a medication like Imodium or Kaopectate according to the directions, but do not give this medicine to a child. Give a child Pedialyte to prevent dehydration.


However, if you have ANY of the following symptoms you should seek medical care immediately, whether you live in an area where swine flu has been identified or not:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting


If you have children, take them to the emergency room if they have any of these symptoms:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

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