Your nose is stuffy, your throat is scratchy, and your head is pounding. Is it a cold or the seasonal flu? Symptoms can overlap, so unless your doctor runs a flu test—a quick check done with a swab from the back of your nose or throat—as soon as you start to get sick, it’s hard to know for sure. Here are some basic guidelines on how to tell the difference between cold and flu symptoms, and what to do if you have either one of these infections.
The Common Cold
The common cold is called “common” for a reason. This seasonal respiratory infection is the leading cause of doctor’s office visits and missed work or school days each year. In fact, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, approximately 22 million school days are lost each year in the United States due to the common cold (NIAID, 2012).
While a cold generally resolves quickly, symptoms can last for up to two weeks. However, unlike the flu, symptoms are generally mild and in most cases do not lead to any serious health complications.
According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 100 different viruses can cause the common cold. However, the rhinovirus is most often the one that makes people sneeze and sniffle, and it’s highly contagious (Mayo, 2011). Most cold-causing viruses thrive in environments with low humidity, which may be why colds are more common during the fall and winter months. However, you can catch a cold any time during the year.
When someone who’s sick sneezes or coughs, he or she sends virus-filled droplets flying through the air. You can get sick if you touch a surface (such as a countertop or doorknob) that has recently been handled by a cold-infected person, and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes.
If you have a cold, you’ll probably experience symptoms such as:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- slight fever (more common in children)
- headache or body aches
- mild tiredness
What to Do if You Have a Cold
Colds are contagious during the first three days, so stay home and rest up. Because this is a viral infection, antibiotics are not effective in treating a cold. However, over-the-counter medications (antihistamines, decongestants, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines) can relieve congestion, aches, and other symptoms. Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
Some people take natural cold remedies, such as zinc, vitamin C, or echinacea. According to the NIAID, research studies haven’t confirmed whether these remedies can prevent or reduce the symptoms or length of a cold (NIAID, 2011).
Colds usually clear up within a few days. See a doctor if your cold hasn’t improved in about a week. You could have allergies, or a bacterial or sinus infection that requires antibiotics. A nagging cough could also be a sign of asthma.
There’s an old saying that laments, “We can put a man on the moon, but we still can’t cure the common cold.” While it’s true that doctors haven’t yet identified a vaccine, there are ways to prevent this mild but annoying affliction.
Because colds spread so easily, the best prevention is avoidance. Stay away from anyone who looks sick, and don’t share utensils or any other personal items—even with people who seem healthy. Sharing goes both ways—when you’re sick with a cold, stay home.
Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands often with warm water and soap to get rid of any germs you might have picked up during the day, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. When they’re not freshly washed, keep your hands away from your nose, eyes, and mouth. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and always wash your hands afterward. It’s also important to adopt healthy habits. These include getting plenty of sleep, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, exercising, and managing stress to keep cold germs at bay.
Influenza—or “the flu,” as it’s better known—is another respiratory illness. Unlike the common cold, the flu can develop into a more serious condition such as pneumonia. This is especially true for young children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with health conditions such as asthma or heart disease (CDC, 2011).
Unlike the cold, which can hit at any time of year, the flu is generally seasonal. Flu season usually runs from fall to spring, peaking during the winter months. During flu season, you can catch the flu in the same way you’d pick up a cold: by coming into contact with droplets spread by an infected person.
The seasonal flu is caused by the influenza A and B viruses. Active strains of influenza virus vary from year to year. That’s why a new flu vaccine is released each year.
Flu symptoms can be similar to those of a cold, although they’re usually more severe. Symptoms can include:
- dry, hacking cough
- fever or chills (although not everyone with the flu will run a fever)
- sore throat
- muscle or body aches, headache
- stuffy and runny nose
- profound fatigue (may last two to three weeks)
Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children (CDC, 2011).
What to Do if You Have the Flu
In most cases, fluids and rest are the best way to treat the flu. To control your symptoms and feel better, try over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. However, never give aspirin to children. It can increase the risk of a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
Your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs—oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza)—to treat the flu. These drugs can shorten the duration of the flu, and prevent complications such as pneumonia, but you need to take them within the first couple of days of getting sick (Mayo Clinic, 2011).
When to Call a Doctor
If you’re at risk for complications from the flu, call your doctor when you first have symptoms. According the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, those at risk for serious complications include:
- people over the age of 50
- pregnant women
- children under the age of two
- those with weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, steroid treatment, or chemotherapy
- people with chronic lung or heart conditions
- people with metabolic disorders such as diabetes, anemia, or kidney disease
- people living in long-term care facilities (UCSF, 2012)
Contact your doctor right away if your symptoms do not improve, or if they become severe. See a doctor if you have signs of pneumonia, such as:
- trouble breathing
- a severe sore throat
- a cough that produces green mucus
- a high fever
Monitor children closely, and seek prompt medical treatment if they develop the following symptoms:
- labored breathing
- refusing to eat or drink
- trouble waking or interacting
The best way to prevent the flu is by getting the flu shot. Most doctors recommend getting the shot in September, at the very start of flu season. However, you can still get the vaccine in late fall or winter.
To avoid picking up the influenza virus, wash your hands often and thoroughly with warm soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth, and try to stay away from anyone who has the flu.