Symptoms

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Question

How can I tell if I have the flu or a cold?

Answer

The flu (influenza) and the common cold are both infections that develop in the airways and are caused by viruses. While they tend to have similar symptoms, there are notable differences:

  • A common cold typically starts with a sore throat. A few days later, most people develop a cough and runny nose. People who have a cold usually do not develop a fever or muscle aches. A cold usually lasts about a week.

  • The flu usually hits more suddenly, causing a fever, headache, dry cough, and chills. After a few days, the fever subsides and the patient may develop nasal congestion and a sore throat. Most people suffering from the flu feel tired or exhausted, and complain of muscle aches or pains. The flu tends to last longer than a cold - anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

The chart below gives an at-a-glance look at the symptomatic differences between a cold and the flu.

Symptoms Occurrence with Colds Occurrence with Flu
Fever Rare Common, high fever
Headache Rare Common
Muscle aches/pain Rare/mild Common, may be severe
Tiredness/weakness Mild Common, lasts a few weeks
Stuffy nose Common Occasionally
Runny nose/sneezing Common Occasionally
Cough Common - mild cough Common, may be severe
Sore Throat Common Occasionally

Because both colds and the flu are viral infections, antibiotics will not work. Antibiotics should be prescribed only for diagnosed bacterial infections - a common complication of viral infections.

The best way to treat a cold or the flu is to provide symptomatic relief - with over-the-counter (OTC) products, drinking fluids, and getting plenty of sleep. Before selecting an OTC remedy, be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist first as certain ingredients in OTC products may interact with prescription medications you also may be taking or worsen certain medical conditions. Pregnant women, young children, people over 65 years of age, and those with chronic medical conditions should always talk to their doctor first before using OTC medications.

These are common ingredients in OTC cold or flu products:

  • Antihistamines (diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine, doxylamine, dexbrompheniramine) help with sneezing and runny nose. Common side effects include drowsiness and dry mouth.

  • Decongestants (pseudoephedrine , phenylephrine) can help relieve nasal and sinus congestion. Common side effects include increased blood pressure and trouble sleeping.

  • Cough suppressants (dextromethorphan) help decrease coughing. Liquid remedies containing dextromethorphan often have a strong taste. This medication should not be taken with certain antidepressants called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (also called MAO inhibitors or MAOIs).

  • Analgesics (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin) help decrease fever and pain. Aspirin and ibuprofen products are best taken with food. Aspirin should not be given to anyone under the age of 18 years because its use in children has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a potentially life-threatening disease.

If you have a cold or the flu and your symptoms do not improve within seven to 10 days, or you have difficulty breathing, a high fever that will not break, or exhibit other symptoms that are not usual for a cold or the flu, call your doctor for further treatment.

The best way to head off the flu is get an annual flu shot. Ask your doctor if this is appropriate for you. In addition, avoiding people who are sick with a cold or flu and washing your hands frequently are good prevention tactics.

Visit our Flu Center for health information or find a store to get a flu shot.

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