Is It a Cold or the Flu?

It's All About Severity

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Woman with flu lying in bed
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The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses and share similar symptoms. So what's the difference? The main difference between the common cold and the flu is the severity of the symptoms, which dictates the proper course of treatment.

Because the cold and flu are caused by viruses, they cannot be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms can be alleviated with certain kinds of medication, but the only true treatment is to let the illness run its course.

Symptoms of the Common Cold

Cold symptoms are generally above the neck. They tend to gradually worsen over the course of a few days. Although many common cold symptoms are similar to flu symptoms, they're much less severe. They'll knock you off your feet, but they do not usually result in serious health problems or hospitalizations. Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Watery eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

Symptoms of the Flu

The flu is different. Instead of symptoms that start slowly and gradually get worse over time, the flu hits you all at once. You'll feel completely wiped out and unable to function. Common flu symptoms are:

  • Fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Chills
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Body aches

Treatment for the Cold & the Flu

Identifying symptoms early is the best thing you can do. The flu is much more serious than a cold. Flu seasons are completely unpredictable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the U.S. vary from a low of approximately 3,000 deaths to a high of approximately 49,000.

If you suspect the flu, notify your doctor within the first 24 hours after symptoms appear.

You can take an antiviral flu medication such as Tamiflu within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms, which can reduce the length and severity of the flu.

Cold symptoms generally aren't as life-altering as the flu. There is no cure for the common cold, but symptoms can be alleviated with over-the-counter products. Generally speaking, getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids is the best thing you can do.

Because the common cold and the flu share so many symptoms, it can be challenging to make an accurate diagnosis based on symptoms alone. Testing is available to diagnose the flu, but there are no such tests for colds. A quick flu test can be done in the doctor's office, with results available within a few minutes.

A flu test will help your doctor decide whether antiviral medication would benefit you if you have the flu. They're most often used to determine how widespread the flu is during that particular year. Doctors are usually able to decide which course of treatment is best for you based on your symptoms and medical history.

See Also


Questions & Answers: Cold Versus Flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 18 Sep 2006. 23 May 2007.

Key Facts About Influenza and the Influenza Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 30 Aug 2006. Department of Health and Human Services. 31 May 2007.

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