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Tricky diagnosis

Though it started out a little slower than usual, this year's flu season has been pretty typical, said Dr. Jack Alexander of Fariview Red Wing Medical Center.

Peak season is normally between January and March, he said, and Minnesota seems to be right on track: Last week, the Minnesota Department of Health website upgraded influenza activity in the state from regional to widespread - the highest level of activity.

Influenza symptoms include a bad cough, body aches and a high fever - symptoms that can be similar to those of a cold. So how do you tell which one you have?

The difference between a cold and influenza, says Alexander, is the severity of the symptoms. He likened the symptoms of the flu to a freight train.

"The virus itself tends to be a little more serious than just a regular cold," he said. "The symptoms are stronger. You tend to be sicker."

Alexander says the best way to determine if you have the flu or just a cold is to monitor the influenza activity in your area.

"Be aware of what's going on in the community," he said.

If you have a higher fever than you usually do when you're sick, have more muscle aches and hear of increased flu activity around you, he said, it makes sense to schedule and appointment with a doctor.

Alexander said doctors can do a nasal swab to test for influenza. If the virus is detected early enough, specific antiviral medications can help lessen the intensity of symptoms, he said.

And because influenza is caused by a virus that mutates from year to year, Alexander said, your body's immunity to it won't last.

"You are vulnerable to get it again each year," he said.

That's unlike most colds, which are caused by a few different viruses that your body can build immunities to.

And, although some people believe that colds are caused by the change from fall to winter, it's really the increased number of people gathering in a confined space that's the culprit.

For example, when school resumes in the fall, children are gathered in classrooms, touching shared objects such as pencils and desks. The children come home and pass the germs on to their parents, who, in turn, go to work and pass them on to their co-workers.

@Sub heds:Relief, prevention

@Normal1: Alexander says getting a lot of rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help relieve flu symptoms. He also said not to count out the benefits of chicken noodle soup to make you feel better.

As for relief from cold symptoms, Alexander says over-the-counter medications can be helpful, though he says to be careful not to overdo it.

"Sometimes medications can make things worse," he said.

To prevent the flu, get vaccinated. Alexander said if you haven't had influenza yet this year, it's not too late to get your flu shot.

Practicing good hygiene is another way to help prevention of influenza - and colds and gastrointestinal illnesses as well. Meanwhile, using hand sanitizers, and sneezing or coughing into your sleeve, not your hands, helps reduce the spread of illnesses as well.

Ann Bailey of the Grand Forks Herald, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper, contributed to this report.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.