Cold or Flu? Know the Differences So You Can Take Action

Man taking temperature

The cold and flu share many symptoms—sneezing, coughing, aches, and fever to name a few. Learn the differences and when your symptoms warrant a visit to your doctor.

Cold vs. Flu

In short, everything about the flu is worse than a cold. The body aches are more severe, the tiredness is more extreme, the fever is more intense. You feel as though you’ve been hit by a truck.

It’s important to know the difference between cold and flu because while a cold is a mild respiratory illness, influenza can cause serious health issues, such as pneumonia. In people at high risk (the elderly, individuals with chronic health problems such as heart disease), flu can sometimes lead to death.

The Common Cold

A cold can be caused by hundreds of viruses. It makes you feel bad for about a week, and you’re more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than with the flu. Colds can lead to bacterial infections, such as a sinus infection, for which you may need antibiotics.

The Flu

Like a cold, a virus causes the flu; unlike a cold, only a few viruses cause the flu every year—and you can protect yourself by getting an annual vaccination against them. Should you get the flu, you’ll be much sicker and may be tired for weeks afterward.

How to Tell the Difference

Many experts say a good place to start is to take your temperature. If you have the flu, your temperature will be much higher than with a cold, and you’ll feel very achy and miserable. Symptoms with the flu can come on quickly, while a cold may come on gradually.

Symptom
Cold
Flu
Fever
Sometimes
Common
Aches and pains
Mild
Usually, often severe
Fatigue, weakness
Sometimes
Usually, 2 to 3 weeks
Stuffy nose
Frequent
Sometimes
Sore throat
Frequent
Sometimes

When to See a Doctor

Sometimes, you can ride out a cold or flu with over-the-counter decongestants and medicine to reduce pain or fever, but if your symptoms are severe, you should get medical treatment. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Fever. A persistent fever could mean you have a bacterial infection and need antibiotics.
  • Sore throat. A very painful sore throat could mean you have strep throat and need antibiotics.
  • Cough. A persistent cough could mean you have bronchitis, pneumonia, or asthma.
  • Congestion and headaches. Congestion and blockage can lead to a sinus infection, which may cause pain around the eyes and face, in addition to a thick nasal discharge.

In addition, if you think you have the flu, your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to shorten the length of your illness. These antiviral medications are most effective when given within the first two days of symptoms.

The Best Advice: Get Your Flu Shot and Wash Your Hands

Flu outbreaks can occur as early as October, usually peaking between late December and March. The best way to avoid the flu is to get an annual flu shot. The CDC recommends everyone age 6 months or older get vaccinated with rare exception. And don’t forget to keep washing your hands to prevent the spread of flu and other germs. Wash your hands frequently with soap and clean running water for at least 20 seconds.

author name

James M. Kelly, MD

James M. Kelly, MD is a family physician who practices at Lincoln Family Medicine in Ephrata, Pa.

Education: He is a graduate of Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and completed his residency at Lancaster General Hospital. He specializes in diabetes care and is a member of the American Diabetes Association.

Call: 717-738-0660

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.

 

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