How To: Tell if You Have a Cold or the Flu

Tell if You Have a Cold or the Flu

Have the sniffles? Yes. Does your head hurt? Yes. Coughing? Yes. Could you have influenza? Yes. How do you know the difference? With these symptoms, you could also have a cold.

In the US right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that flu season is nearing its peak with case reports at elevated levels across the country. Five children died of influenza in just the one week between January 29 and February 4, 2017, with 20 pediatric deaths reported since October 2, 2016.

Besides a similarity of a number of symptoms, colds and the flu are both caused by viruses. Also, both are easily spread through the air, or by contact with viral material left behind by a sneeze or unwashed hands. Both make you feel crummy, but the flu makes you feel worse.

The Symptoms of a Cold

The illness we call the "common cold" is generally caused by a rhinovirus. While rhinoviruses generally aim for the upper respiratory tract, a prolonged battle with a cold could lead to secondary infections like group A streptococcus (strep throat) or pneumonia.

If a child or adult is out sick, the chances are good it is a cold. Adults usually get a few colds each year, and children get more because their immune systems are still developing.

If you are coming down with a cold, you probably get a scratchy throat, runny nose, and start to feel tired. In a day or two, you really start to feel run down, and your nose is a mess. Eventually, sneezy, watery, and miserable, you'll be reaching for tissues and the remote control. For the duration, your symptoms will probably look something like this:

  • body aches and mild headache
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sneezing
  • sore throat

Within about seven to 10 days, you will be feeling better, with maybe a mild cough that lingers from post-nasal drip. If your symptoms do not subside or worsen, or if you suddenly begin to feel much worse, check in with your doctor.

The Symptoms of Influenza

Unlike a cold, the flu comes on quickly. You don't ease into influenza, you feel like you are going down, and you do. Common symptoms are:

  • feeling feverish, chills, or fever—but not everyone will get a fever with the flu
  • body aches and headache that are generally worse than with a cold
  • fatigue
  • cough
  • running or stuffy nose
  • you may have diarrhea or vomiting

A cold comes on pretty steadily, and commonly impacts your upper respiratory system, easing up in just over a week. Symptoms of the flu are usually more uncomfortable, could involve a fever, and may last over two weeks. For those hit particularly hard by a flu virus, other opportunistic viruses and bacteria can cause serious infections involving the lungs, heart, or other organs.

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If you, or a loved one, is young, elderly, or chronically ill, contact your doctor if you have concerns about what they are experiencing. If you experience or observe these symptoms, get medical care immediately:

  • extreme lethargy, refusal to interact, or high irritability
  • high fever, or fever with a rash
  • a patient who is improving and then takes a sudden turn as symptoms return worse than before
  • bluish skin tone, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
  • inability to get patient to take fluids
  • confusion, dizziness, pain in the chest or abdomen

Infants or young children cannot tell you how sick they feel. If your infant cannot hold down food, will not eat, cries without tears, or is not wetting diapers—contact your doctor right away, or go to an emergency department. Antiviral medications can help fight the flu if taken early enough in the course of the illness.

A fever is how your body fights infection. Resist the temptation to give your child fever-reducing medication and don't send them to school. They are contagious, and are more vulnerable to pathogens they may encounter along the way.

Avoiding the Flu

A cold and the flu can cause similar respiratory symptoms—to a point. While a cold is a passing discomfort, the flu can be a real danger, or even fatal. While everyone gets a cold now and then, it makes sense to take steps to avoid catching the flu if possible.

Your best protection against pathogens is an easy one—wash your hands well. Stay away from those who are sick, and try to keep your own unwashed hands off your face, away from eyes and your mouth.

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For protection from influenza, it is not too late to get a flu shot. Those at particularly high risk for influenza include seniors, children, pregnant women, and those with suppressed immune function. Each year the flu vaccination is developed in response to the dominant strains of influenza circling the globe. This year the emergent flu strains seem to be those covered by the vaccine.

"More children have died this year than at the same time last year. This may end up being a bad year for kids, but we just don't know yet. Deaths look high for this year because last year was light. A lot of this is timing," Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist for the CDC, noted in a statement. "It would have been better to get vaccinated in October, and you may want to think about that next year, but you can still get vaccinated and see benefit from it."

If you, or your child, are sick, it is important to know what you have and how to deal with it. Get rest, plenty of fluids, and show you care by not sharing your germs with others.

Cover photo by Apatcha Muenaksorn/123RF

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