Is it a Cold or the Flu? Understanding the Differences

fluIs that stuffy head, runny nose, and nagging cough the result of a cold or the flu? The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warns us that, while both share similar symptoms, it’s important to understand their differences to avoid complications.1

Symptoms of the Common Cold

Each year, millions of people in the United States miss school or work because of the common cold. While they occur more frequently during winter and spring, a cold can hit any time of year.

Symptoms of the common cold usually appear within several days after exposure and include:[1]

  • Cough
  • Sore or itchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Congestion and runny nose
  • Mild body aches or headache

When to Seek Medical Advice about a Cold

Most people recover from a cold within 7 to 10 days. Compared to the flu, the cold virus isn’t likely to cause high fever or severe fatigue.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease suggests contacting a doctor if any of the following apply:1

  • Considerable swollen glands
  • Severe sinus pain
  • Fever of 103o F (39.4o C) or higher
  • Fever accompanied by sweating, chills, and cough with abnormally colored mucus

Symptoms of the Flu

In the United States, flu season starts in fall and can last through March. In general, symptoms are worse than that of the common cold, but don’t require a visit to the doctor. Symptoms usually occur 1 to 4 days after exposure and include:[2]

  • Fever of 100o F (38.0o C) or higher
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Congestion and runny nose
  • Headache and body aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (more likely to occur in children)

When to Seek Medical Advice about the Flu

Certain groups of people are at greater risk for developing complications related to the flu, including bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinus infections. The flu can also worsen a number of long-term medical conditions, such as asthma or congestive heart failure. In rare cases, the flu can lead to hospitalization and/or death.

Mayo Clinic suggests contacting a doctor as soon as possible if you or someone you’re caring for has the flu and is:2

  • Younger than 5 years of age but especially under 2
  • 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant
  • Younger than 19 years old and receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Living with a long-term health condition, including asthma, emphysema, heart disease, diabetes, neuromuscular disease, and kidney, liver, or blood disease
  • Someone with a weakened immune systems due to certain medications or HIV
  • An American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Someone with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40. Calculate your BMI.

[1] “Is it a Cold or the Flu?” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. August, 2014.

[2] Steckelberg, James M., MD. “I think I have the flu. Should I see my doctor?” Mayo Clinic. August 22, 2013.

by Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


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