You wake up coughing, sneezing and congested and feel like you don’t even have enough energy to get out of bed.

You’re sick! But how sick are you?

Despite efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reassure Americans, health experts and hospitals around the country are preparing for a potential flood of Ebola-panicked patients scared their common cold or fever might be the deadly infection.

It’s a common phenomenon we see: Whatever is on the news, we’re likely to see in the ER, in terms of people worried they have it. It’s just a natural concern individuals have, “Oh my goodness, I could have that.”

While many people are able to quickly recognize something is going through their system, many people are unable to differentiate between a common cold and influenza. The common cold and flu are different types of viral infections of the respiratory system. Because they share similar symptoms and may feel the same, it can be hard to tell them apart.

The diagnosis of Ebola coincides with the kickoff of flu season, a time when emergency rooms are already pushed to capacity. And since initial Ebola virus symptoms appear similar to those of the flu, health experts believe, news of the diagnosis may add to overcrowding.

Maybe you could benefit from a better understanding of viruses and bacteria. Both viral and bacterial infections will make you feel sick and they share many of the same symptoms. But, did you know:

A cold or flu virus usually lasts only up to 10 days while illnesses caused by bacteria usually last more than two weeks

Cold and flu symptoms — runny noses, watery eyes, dry coughs, sore throats, chills, aches and pains — are caused by viruses, not bacteria

Adults who have a sore throat without significant fever most likely do not have a bacterial infection, such as strep throat — their disease is more likely to be caused by a virus.

Most coughs do not need an antibiotic

Although disease-causing bacteria and viruses cause many common infections, they are not the same. Bacteria can live and are found both inside and outside the human body. Viruses, on the other hand, are much smaller in size than bacteria and cannot survive outside the body’s cells. Bacteria contain the genetic material they need to reproduce, while viruses need to invade healthy cells to reproduce.

Most bacteria are harmless to humans. In fact, many are quite beneficial. The bacteria in the environment are essential for the breakdown of organic waste and the recycling of elements in the environment. Bacteria that normally live in humans can prevent infections and produce substances we need, such as vitamin K. Bacteria in the stomachs of cows and sheep are what enable them to digest grass. Bacteria are also essential to the production of yogurt, cheese and pickles. Some bacteria cause infections in humans. In fact, they are a devastating cause of human disease.

One very common type of bacterial attack is tooth decay. Even though not immediately apparent, bacteria that have been allowed to accumulate on the surface of teeth metabolize the sugar in the foods we eat. The organic acids released by the bacteria have a corrosive affect on the enamel surface of our teeth. Several recent studies have shown a link between dental disease and coronary heart disease.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. The following are some basic guidelines regarding some of the most common illnesses:

Colds and flu — Viruses cause these illnesses. They cannot be cured with antibiotics. Both children and adults should consider being vaccinated with the influenza and pneumococcal vaccines. Ask your doctor or pediatrician.

Cough or bronchitis — Viruses almost always cause these. However, if you have a problem with your lungs or an illness that lasts a long time, bacteria might actually be the cause. Your doctor might decide to try using an antibiotic.

Sore throat — Most sore throats are caused by viruses and don’t need antibiotics. However, strep throat is caused by bacteria. A throat swab and a lab test are usually needed before your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic for strep throat.

Ear infections — There are several types of ear infections. Antibiotics are used for some, but not all, ear infections.

Sinus infections —A runny nose and yellow or green mucus do not necessarily mean you need an antibiotic. It is normal for mucus to get thick and change color during the course of a viral infection. For some long-lasting or severe cases, your doctor might decide to prescribe antibiotics.

Antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria. They do not work against any infections caused by viruses. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not cure it, help you feel better, or prevent someone else from getting your virus.

Usually, antibiotics kill bacteria or stop them from growing. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria adapt or change in a way that makes a specific antibiotic less able to kill them or stop them from growing. These “resistant” bacteria survive and multiply — causing more harm, such as a longer or more severe illness, more doctor visits and the need for treatment with a more expensive and more powerful antibiotic. Over time, more and more bacteria are becoming more and more resistant to some of the most commonly used antibiotics. As this happens, fewer antibiotics are able to treat common, severe and even rare illnesses caused by bacteria.

Many people have asked me to explain the difference between a cold and the flu. I hope this helps:

If you have a cold:

Your illness will usually begin slowly, two to three days after infection by the virus. It will normally last only two to seven days. You will most likely first notice a scratchy, sore throat, followed by sneezing and a runny nose. You may get a mild cough a few days later.

Adults and older children usually don’t have a fever, but if they do, it will be very mild. Infants and young children, however, sometimes have fevers up to 102 degrees.

If you have the flu:

You will have a sudden headache and dry cough. You might have a runny nose and a sore throat. Your muscles will ache. You will be extremely tired. You can have a fever of up to 104 degrees. You most likely will feel better in a couple of days, but the tiredness and cough can last for two weeks or longer.

In addition to hand washing to prevent flu or cold symptoms, you can also get a flu vaccine to prevent seasonal influenza. Seasonal flu activity in the United States generally peaks between late December and early March. Within two weeks of getting a flu vaccine, antibodies develop in the body and provide protection against flu.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional.

Glenn Ellis, is a health advocacy communication specialist.

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