It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and the flu. Both are respiratory illnesses that are caused by viruses. They have many of the same symptoms.
But the flu is a more serious illness and usually makes people feel sicker. It can cause severe complications like pneumonia and bacterial infections. Some people may need prescription anti-viral medicines to treat the flu. Some flu-sufferers end up in the hospital. Flu can be life-threatening.
Cold versus flu symptoms
The chart below can help you figure out if you have a cold or the flu.
|Fever||Rare||Usual. High, 100 to 102 degrees. Lasts 3-4 days.|
|Aches and pains||Slight||Usual. Often severe.|
|Exhaustion||Never||Usual. Comes at beginning of illness|
|Fatigue||Sometimes||Usual. Can last as long as 2 to 3 weeks.|
|Cough, chest discomfort||Mild or moderate, hacking cough||Common. Can become severe.|
How to avoid the flu
The flu can best be prevented by receiving a yearly flu vaccination. Health officials recommend that everyone age 6 months and older get a flu vaccination every year. It is especially important for certain people to get the vaccination. People 65 and older, children and pregnant women are among those more vulnerable than others to complications of the flu. American Indians and Alaskan Natives also seem to be at higher risk.
People with certain medical conditions are also more vulnerable to developing complications. Those conditions are:
- Diabetes and metabolic disorders
- Heart disease, including congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
- Morbid obesity
- Asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis and those with other chronic lung diseases
- Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve and muscle (such as cerebral palsy); seizure disorders, stroke, mental retardation, developmental delay, muscular dystrophy or spinal cord injury
- Kidney, liver or blood disorders, including sickle cell anemia
- Weakened immune systems stemming from disease or medication
- People under 19 years of age who are on long-term aspirin therapy
A flu vaccine is also available as a nasal spray for some people.
How to avoid colds
You may be able to keep yourself from getting a cold — or passing one on — by following a few important tips.
- Wash your hands often. Cold viruses can stay on your hands for up to three hours. From there they can enter the body through your eyes, nose or mouth.
- When water isn't available, use alcohol-based disinfectants for hands.
- Cold viruses can survive on objects like doorknobs and railings for up to three hours. Cleaning these surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant might limit the spread of colds.
- Keep your distance from someone who is sick. Stay away from others if you are sick. Sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow rather than your hand.
Treatment for both illnesses includes getting rest, drinking fluids and possibly taking over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms. Some people with flu will be prescribed anti-viral medication (see below).
Special considerations for infants and children
Ask your child's doctor how and when to use over-the-counter medicines for colds and cough. Expert opinions vary about the ages for which these products can be used safely. If possible, have this conversation before your child gets sick. Then you'll be prepared. Talk about these basic safety rules:
- For children younger than 2 years: Do not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. There is a risk of life-threatening side effects for this age group. In fact, many package labels say not to use the medicine for children younger than age 4.
- For safety's sake, do not give these medicines to any child without checking with the doctor first.
- Some cough and cold medicines contain fever-reducers. Don't combine them with other fever-reducing drugs, such as acetaminophen. This can cause an overdose.
- Always read and follow package directions to be sure the medicine is appropriate for your child.
If you have the flu, you should stay home. If you don't, you could infect others who might get seriously ill.
Most people who get the flu will get a mild case and not need medical attention or antiviral drugs. They typically recover in less than two weeks. However, some people get very sick and require hospitalization. Occasionally, flu can result in death.
Signs that you need emergency help for the flu include:
- For children
- Fast or difficult breathing
- Bluish skin
- Not drinking enough liquids
- Not waking up or interacting
- Fever with a rash
- Symptoms that improve but then come back with fever and a worse cough
- For adults
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Severe or continuous vomiting
- Symptoms that improve but then come back with fever and a worse cough.
Some people who get the flu may need treatment before they feel very sick. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Check with your doctor if you have a high-risk condition and get the flu.
You doctor may give you anti-viral drugs. These are prescription medicines. They are different from antibiotics, which fight bacterial infections.
By knowing the symptoms of the flu and colds, you can take better care of yourself and those around you.
Created on 10/13/1999
Updated on 01/23/2013
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Is it a cold or the flu?
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Common cold: Prevention.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you should know for the 2012-2013 influenza season.