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Is it the flu or a cold? How to know the difference

Teresa Tanoos's picture
How to know if it's the flu or a cold

You wake up one morning with a runny nose, feeling achy and coughing and perhaps suffering from a scratchy throat. You know you’ve come down with something, but is it the flu or the common cold? Both have similar symptoms, so how can you tell the difference?

Both the flu and the common cold are respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses. Generally speaking, a cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu, and cold symptoms can last for a few days, whereas the flu can knock you out for up to a week or even weeks in severe cases, sometimes forcing you to be hospitalized if you develop more serious health problems like pneumonia and bacterial infections.

Common Cold Symptoms

Cold symptoms often start off with a sore throat that usually lasts for only 24 to 48 hours, but is then replaced with a runny nose, followed by nasal congestion, and then a cough around day four or five. You are contagious for the first three days of cold symptoms, so you can pass it on to others, which is why you should stay home and get rest during this time.

Common cold symptoms in adults usually don’t include a fever, although a slight spike in temperature is possible. However, fevers during a cold are more likely to occur in children.

Viruses are the cause of most common cold symptoms, and there are literally hundreds of different ones that can cause yours.

Common colds generally last about a week, but if symptoms persist beyond that and do not seem to be improving, it’s possible you could have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics. It’s also possible that you don’t have a cold, but have instead developed allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection, which some people mistake for a cold. Regardless, it’s important to see your doctor if your symptoms do not improve after a week.

Common Flu Symptoms

Flu symptoms are typically more severe than cold symptoms, and they include sore throat, fever, congestion, cough, headache, muscle aches and soreness, which gradually improve after a few days. However, you can continue to feel bad for a week or more, especially if you develop complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, which is more common in children, seniors, and those who have lung or heart conditions. Signs of pneumonia can include shortness of breath and a fever that returns after leaving for a day or two.

Flu viruses, like cold viruses, enter your body through the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes, or mouth, so whenever your hand touches these areas, you could be picking up a virus and infecting yourself. That’s why frequent and proper hand washing is so important, as it helps protect you from both influenza and cold viruses.

Tip To Tell If You Have Flu or Cold

Because flu and cold symptoms are often very similar, it can be difficult to tell if you have the flu or common cold. So if you’re still not sure which you have, experts suggest that you take your temperature. If it’s above 100 degrees, you probably have the flu because fevers above that temperature in a common cold are rare, especially in adults. You will also likely feel achy, as body and muscle aches are more common with the flu.

The time of year can also help you determine if it’s the flu or common cold, as the standard flu season typically runs from fall to spring.

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When To Call Your Doctor

If you’re already suffering from the flu or a cold, call your doctor if you develop any severe symptoms like the following:

Persistent fever: This could indicate a bacterial infection that requires treatment.
Painful swallowing: This could indicate strep throat that requires treatment.
Persistent coughing: This could indicate bronchitis that requires antibiotics.
Persistent congestion and headaches: This could indicate a sinus infection or sinusitis.

(If you have pain around the eyes and face with thick nasal discharge after a week, you may have a bacterial infection and possibly need an antibiotic).

Some symptoms in adults may require immediate emergency medical treatment, including:

• Severe chest pain
• Severe headache
• Shortness of breath
• Dizziness
• Confusion
• Persistent vomiting

Symptoms in children that may require immediate emergency treatment include:

• Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
• Bluish skin color
• Not drinking enough fluids
• Lethargy and failure to interact normally
• Extreme irritability or distress
• Symptoms that were improving and then suddenly worsen
• Fever with a rash

Top Two Tips To Prevent Flu and Cold Symptoms

You can protect yourself and your family from the flu and common cold through frequent and proper hand washing. The best way to wash your hands is to rub them together with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds, as this helps to slough off germs from the skin.

It’s also a good idea to get a flu vaccine to prevent seasonal influenza. Now is the time to schedule you and your family’s flu shots. Within two weeks of getting a flu vaccine, antibodies develop in the body and provide protection against flu. Antiviral medicine may also help prevent flu if you have been exposed to someone with flu symptoms.

As we head into the flu and cold season while the government is shut down, it’s more important than ever for Americans to take charge of their health and do what they can to protect themselves from viruses that cause influenza and the common cold.

This is especially true since the government shutdown means public access to flu information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is unavailable. On October 8, 2013, the CDC confirmed its inability to provide such useful information due to the government shutdown in a notice posted on its influenza website and excerpted as follows:

“Due to the lapse in government funding, regular updates to the CDC Influenza web site will not be possible. CDC will not be routinely analyzing surveillance data, nor testing laboratory specimens submitted as part of routine surveillance. Support for outbreak investigations and response to public queries regarding influenza circulation and prevention will be limited during this time. As a result, information regarding influenza activity and appropriate prevention and treatment guidance on this website may not be up to date.”

SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Situation Update: Summary of Weekly FluView; CDC, Cold Versus Flu