What is the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

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Published on December 11, 2019

What is the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

Infographic of Cold and Flu symptomsInfographic of Cold and Flu symptomsFeeling sick but can’t tell if it’s a cold or the flu?

“Since a cold and the flu have a few common overlapping symptoms, it’s easy for the two to be mistaken for one another,” says Mina Jamalleh Abu Gosh MD, PIH Health Internal Medicine physician.

It’s important to understand both illnesses and know when it’s best to see your doctor.

Cold symptoms

As a viral upper respiratory tract infection, the cold typically affects the nasal part of the respiratory system. Usually, this infection is mild and goes away with rest. Some of the symptoms include a runny nose, headache and sneezing. Many patients also experience a cough or a sore throat.

Colds are usually more common in the winter and spring months, and they can last for about seven to10 days. A cold can be prevented by frequent handwashing and by avoiding close contact with people who have a cold.

Flu symptoms

The flu is caused by the influenza virus. This virus lasts about five to seven days and symptoms include high fever, fatigue, headache and muscle aches. Experts believe the most effective way to avoid getting the flu is by getting an annual flu shot. The vaccine takes about two weeks after the injection to start protecting the body from the virus.

“Make sure to get your flu vaccine before the start of the flu season, which is around the fall and ends in late spring. The flu vaccine not only protects you from the flu, but also those around you who do not have strong immunity, like the elderly, small children and those with chronic illnesses,” says Dr. Abu Gosh.

When should I see a doctor?

Most colds and flus are not treated with antibiotics and rarely require a trip to the doctor’s office. The flu can occasionally be life-threatening for those with a compromised immune system, but for most people rest and plenty of fluids should be sufficient.

Make sure to seek medical treatment if you experience shortness of breath, trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest or stomach, dizziness when standing, decreased urination or a fever that lasts for more than 48 hours. Visit your primary care physician or urgent care as possible.

The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.