The Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

During the colder months, you become more prone to developing illnesses, particularly the common cold and the flu, which is at its peak between December and February.

These illnesses often project similar symptoms, making it harder to determine which one you are suffering from. Oftentimes, when you contract a cold you can treat the worst symptoms with over-the-counter medicines and remedies.

Alternately, when you are infected with the flu it is important to seek medical attention to ensure the symptoms do not worsen from lack of proper treatment. You may need a prescribed medication, or overnight observation depending upon the severity of your flu symptoms. To ensure you are receiving the proper treatment for your ailment, it is beneficial to learn the difference between these ailments.

What are the primary symptoms of the flu?

The easiest way to distinguish between cold and flu symptoms is to judge the severity of the symptoms you are experiencing. In many cases, patients who become infected with the flu develop serious symptoms which are brought on suddenly. The primary symptoms associated with the flu include the following:

  • Fever
  • Headache or muscle aches
  • Muscle soreness
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Coughing

While these symptoms occur when you are infected with a common cold as well, they are more intense and when you have the flu. Muscle aches and soreness are rare when you are suffering from a cold, but they are two of the predominate symptoms of the flu virus. Additionally, if any of your symptoms persist for longer than three to four days, this is usually a sign of the flu. Cold symptoms tend to clear up more quickly, with some only lasting for a day.

If you are unsure of whether your symptoms are indicative of a cold, you can take your temperature to determine the type of infection you may be experiencing. When you have the flu, your temperature typically reads at 101 degree or higher. If you simply have a common cold, you do not experience elevated body temperatures.

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Another way of determining whether you have the flu is to monitor your symptoms to see how they progress over the course of your illness. If you experience pain when swallowing due to a severe sore throat, a persistent cough or congestion, or a persistent headache, you must seek medical treatment from your primary care physician. These symptoms can lead to a more severe illness, as other infections can develop once you have contracted the flu. In particular, you may develop strep throat or pneumonia as a result of leaving your flu symptoms untreated.

What are the symptoms of the common cold?

When you are experiencing the common cold, your symptoms may present themselves in a variety of ways. Typically, you experience a sore throat, runny nose and a cough. You may develop a slight fever when you have a cold, though this is less common for adults and typically registers below 101 degrees. If a child is experiencing cold symptoms, he or she may develop a fever, as this is more common in children than adults.

You typically do not need to consult with your physician when you are experiencing a cold, unless your symptoms last for longer than a week. When this happens, you must seek medical attention to ensure you have not developed a more serious illness, such as a sinus infection. Typically, when you are suffering from a common cold you can take several medications to relieve your symptoms. These medicines can include:

  • Decongestants.
  • Over-the-counter cold medicine.
  • Pain relievers.
  • Fever reducing medicines.
  • Antibiotics in some cases.

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Antibiotics are only distributed with a written prescription from a doctor, so you must speak with a healthcare professional if you feel as though you need antibiotics to treat your cold symptoms. If your symptoms continue after using one of these medicines, you must schedule an appointment with your doctor or visit an urgent care center in your area to determine whether your cold has progressed into the flu.

How do I prevent colds and the flu?

While there is no fool-proof method for prevention, there are certain steps you can take to lower your risk of contracting a cold or the flu, especially during the winter months. One of the easiest ways to protect yourself is to receive a flu shot at the onset of winter. These immunizations help protect your immune system against the worst symptoms associated with the flu and may even keep you from developing the flu entirely.

Washing your hands frequently throughout the day is an additional line of defense against infection, as you may be inadvertently picking up germs from common surfaces. Some examples include your desk at work or school, the train or subway or through an office. When you wash your hands, be sure to use warm water and soap. It is recommended you rub your hands together in the soapy water for approximately 20 seconds before rinsing. This helps to kill the germs you have accumulated throughout the day.

If you know one of your colleagues or family members has become ill recently, it is best to avoid close contact with the infected individual until he or she is no longer contagious. When your child is sick with a cold or the flu, you must ensure you are washing your hands thoroughly after you interact with your child to prevent yourself from becoming ill as well. Similarly, if you are the one who is infected, limit your contact with the outside world. You may feel bad for missing school or work, but it is worse for you to go and spread your infection.

If you have already developed the flu or a cold, you must ensure you are hydrating properly throughout the length of your illness and resting whenever possible. When you drink enough liquids, rest enough and take medicine or antibiotics, you can usually dispel the worst of your symptoms within the span of a week.

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