Cold and Flu

How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

The common cold and the flu are two of the most frequently confused illnesses because they both tend to result in congestion and other breathing issues. Though the two illnesses may share some similarities, their underlying causes are very different. Therefore, it is necessary to determine whether you have a flu or a cold so that you can treat it properly.

Cold and Flu

What Causes the Flu or a Cold?

Technically, the main difference between these two types of illnesses is that they are caused by an entirely different type of harmful virus. The common cold can be caused by over 100 different viruses, including rhinovirus, coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. These types of viruses spread rapidly, but they are ultimately very mild. The viruses that cause the common cold are active throughout the year, and there are so many of them that it is hard to create a vaccine against the cold. The flu is only caused by the influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C viruses These types of viruses are strictly seasonal, occurring during late fall, the winter, and early spring. Each year, there is typically just one strain of the influenza virus that spreads, so a new flu vaccine can be created each year. Though the influenza virus causes some of the symptoms associated with the common cold, it is generally far more severe.

How Can You Tell the Flu and a Cold Apart?

The main way to figure out if you have a flu or a cold is the duration and severity of your symptoms, but symptoms also vary slightly depending on which illness you have. A cold typically starts out with a sore throat for a few days. On the third or fourth day, a person with a cold normally gets a runny nose that gradually becomes more and more congested. During this time, a person with a cold might start to cough, sneeze, and have a slight fever or headache. People with colds tend to feel generally tired, dizzy, and sick for a few days, but symptoms start to go away within a week.

If a person is infected with a flu virus, they will start out with a sore throat and some congestion too. However, unlike the cold, the flu is associated with deep muscle aches, extreme exhaustion, soreness throughout the body, an intense headache, and a moderate to high fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes, if a person has swine flu or gastroenteritis, which is commonly called the stomach flu, they may also face an upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. People with the flu can continue to feel ill for a few weeks, and they may develop severe complications like pneumonia.

Do You Treat the Flu and a Cold Differently?

Neither the flu nor the cold can be treated with antibiotics because they are viral infections. Instead, a cold is normally treated with over the counter medications, including decongestants and acetaminophen, that are used to ease cold symptoms. During a cold, it is important to get plenty of rest and fluids as the body fights the cold. Treatment for the flu also includes rest, getting plenty of fluids, and using over the counter pain relievers and fever reducers. However, people with the flu should never take aspirin, which can cause a rare and life threatening case of Reye’s syndrome. The flu may be treated with antiviral drugs, which can be prescribed by a doctor, and these antivirals make the flu much shorter in duration. However, these antiviral medications are only effective if you take them within 48 hours of catching the flu.