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How Do I Know If I Have the Flu or Just a Cold?

Johnson Memorial Health on Jan 2, 2020

flu-season-chalkboardThe common cold and flu can sometimes have similar symptoms, and it's not always easy to determine which one you have. When is it time to see a doctor?

Knowing the difference between cold and flu can shorten the amount of time you spend recovering. Generally:

  • The flu develops quickly, while cold symptoms develop gradually.
  • The flu is worse, and the symptoms are more severe than a cold.
  • Runny nose is more common with cold than flu.
  • Colds do not lead to more serious health problems, such as pneumonia, hospitalizations, or bacterial infections.

Common Cold

The common cold is a seasonal respiratory infection. It's called "common" for a reason. It's highly contagious! The common cold is a virus that thrives in the fall and winter months, although you can get a cold any time during the year. It can be spread through the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread by touching a doorknob that someone who has been infected has touched. No wonder it is so important to wash your hands every chance you get!

Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • mild fever
  • headache or body aches
  • mild fatigue

Because the common cold is a viral infection, antibiotics will not work. Over the counter medications can relieve some of the symptoms, but will not shorten the illness. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Staying home and resting is the best way to recover quickly. This will also prevent the spread of the infection to others. A cold will usually go away within a few days, but if it lasts longer than a week, you should see the doctor.

Do your best to stay healthy and prevent the spread of sickness. Wash your hands frequently. Stay home and rest when you are sick. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.


Influenza, commonly known as "flu" is another seasonal respiratory illness. Unlike the common cold, the flu can develop into a much more serious illness such a pneumonia. Generally, the flu is seasonal. Flu season runs from the Fall to the Spring, and it's most prevalent during the winter months. Like a cold, the flu is spread by coming into contact with someone who is infected.

Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • runny or stuffy nose
  • dry, hacking cough
  • sore throat
  • moderate to high fever
  • headache
  • severe body and muscle aches
  • shaking chills
  • extreme fatigue

In most cases, fluids and rest are the best treatments. Over the counter medications can lesson certain symptoms. Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to treat the flu. These drugs can shorten the illness and prevent complication such as developing a more serious illness. These antiviral drugs need to be taken within the first 48 hours of illness to be most effective.

Call your doctor right away if you are at risk for complication from the flu. These people include:

  • people over age 50
  • people under age 2
  • pregnant women
  • those with weakened immune systems
  • those with chronic lung or heart conditions
  • those with metabolic conditions
  • those in nursing homes or long term care centers

Call your doctor right away if your symptoms don't improve or you start to develop more serious symptoms such as:

  • trouble breathing
  • severe sore throat
  • cough that produces green mucous
  • high, persistent fever
  • chest discomfort

The best way to prevent the flu is getting an annual flu shot. You can get one any time during the flu season. The shots work to build antibodies that will protect you from the flu virus.

Other ways you can prevent the spread of illness is to frequently wash your hands and stay away from people who have flu-like symptoms. Keep your body healthy with plenty of rest, healthy foods, and exercise.

Topics: Flu