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BLOOMINGTON — It's that time of year again.

It may start with a sniffle and turn into a cough and congestion. But is it a cold or the flu?

Even though both are respiratory illnesses, they can be difficult to tell apart. The symptoms of flu are generally more severe than those of colds, health officials say.

Colds are rarely accompanied by fever as flu is and don't cause extreme exhaustion as flu does.

And, while colds can develop into sinus congestion and earache, flu can develop into the more serious bronchitis and pneumonia.

Both flu and colds are transmitted through microscopic droplets from an infected person's respiratory system. So what can we do to help prevent flu and colds?

Washing hands frequently is essential. So is using tissues when you cough and sneeze. If you sneeze into your hands, make sure you wash afterward.

Not touching your eyes, nose or mouth helps prevent germs from entering the body.

"Just rubbing our eyes is a major way to infect ourselves," warned Kathleen Davis, a spokeswoman for the McLean County Health Department.

Shared surfaces like phones and keyboards can become contaminated. Disinfecting these surfaces is helpful because viruses can live there for several hours, she said.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot, said Davis, adding there is still some available.

If you do get the flu or a cold, there are ways to ease symptoms, including prescription flu drugs if taken when flu symptoms first appear. Over-the-counter cold and flu medicines can offer some relief from fever and aches. Decongestants can aid breathing by shrinking swollen mucous membranes inside the nose.

Drinking lots of fluids is important as it keeps your body hydrated.

Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses that cause either flu or colds, Davis said, adding antibiotics treat bacterial infections.

You should see a doctor if you have difficulty breathing, persistent fever or coughing, vomiting or inability to keep fluids down, she said.

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