Cold? Flu? Over-the-counter drugs and chicken soup help both, right? Not so fast.
Learning whether it is a cold or flu is important because the flu can have serious complications such as pneumonia or even death. Treating flu within 48 hours of symptoms is best. Prescription antiviral drugs may cut the time you're sick.
Flu: Comes on Fast and Furious
If you feel like you've been hit by a truck, it's probably the flu. Flu symptoms like sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough tend to come on suddenly and are more intense than cold symptoms. Colds usually include a runny or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms usually improve over two to five days, but you might feel run-down for a week or longer. Colds come on gradually and last about a week.
Fever: Usually Means Flu
While some people may develop a slight fever when they have a cold, most do not. If you have the flu, you will probably run a fever of 100-102 degrees or higher. Children's flu fevers tend to be higher, and children may be more likely to develop a fever with the common cold.
Flu: Fatigue Can Last for Weeks
When you've got the flu, you likely start off feeling extremely tired and achy all over. That fatigue and weakness may last for up to 3 weeks -- or even longer in the elderly, and people with chronic diseases or a weak immune system. With a cold, you usually feel bad for just a few days.
Colds and Flu: Can Cause Headaches
A headache isn't a reliable indicator of flu because a cold can cause a headache, too. But a headache caused by a cold, like other cold symptoms, tends to be milder than one caused by flu.
Coughs: Sign of Both Colds and Flu
Because both colds and flu are respiratory illnesses, which affect your airways, both can cause coughing.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that can be a complication of the flu. Call your doctor if you have a persistent cough, fever higher than 102 degrees and chills, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or chest pain as a result of coughing, or are coughing up yellow-green or bloody phlegm.
Earaches: Can Come From Colds or Flu
Colds and flu can cause earaches because they can irritate the eustachian tube that connects your throat to your middle ear. That irritation can cause dull or burning pain. Cold and flu-related earaches usually go away by themselves.
If pain lasts longer than your sickness or you feel sudden, strong pain, see a doctor. You may have developed an ear infection that needs treatment.
Colds: Often Start With Sore Throat
Most colds start with a sore throat for one to two days. A runny and stuffy nose is also common. Sore throats can be a symptom of the flu -- with flu, a sore throat is accompanied by fatigue and other symptoms that often happen all at once.
Stuffy Nose: May Mean a Cold
Unless you're also feverish, very achy, and just plain zapped of energy, you've likely got a cold -- although many people with the flu also report a stuffy nose and sneezing.
Both cold and flu can lead to sinus infections. These are marked by a deep and constant pain in the area of the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. The pain usually gets worse with sudden head movement or straining. Seek medical treatment for sinus infections.
Flu Swab Tests Can ID Flu Fast
The quickest and most effective way to know if you have flu or a cold is to get a test at your doctor's office.
By taking a nasal or throat swab, your doctor can often tell if you have the flu virus, usually within 30 minutes or less. If you test positive for flu and your symptoms started within the last 48 hours, your doctor may suggest antiviral treatment to help you recover more quickly.
Flu: Start Antiviral Drugs Quickly
The flu can be brutal, but antiviral medications can make you feel better and shorten the time you are sick by one to two days -- if they are started within two days of getting sick. Over-the-counter medications can also lessen some flu symptoms like cough and congestion. Read labels and instructions carefully so you understand what you are taking and how to take it.
Colds: OTC Drugs Can Reduce Symptoms
Drugstore medicines like decongestants, cough suppressants, and antihistamines can help congestion, cough, and nasal symptoms. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen can treat pain or headache.
Read the active ingredients and warnings on all product labels. Many cough and cold medicines contain the same ingredients, so you could accidentally overdose unless you're careful. Using aspirin to treat flu has been linked to Reye’s Syndrome in children under 18. Talk to your doctor before using aspirin in children.
Cold and Flu Prevention: Hand-Washing
Wash hands well to help prevent the spread of flu from one person to the next. With soap and warm water, vigorously rub your hands together for 20 seconds; don't forget between your fingers and around your nails. Rinse and dry thoroughly. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers also work.
Wash often during cold and flu season, especially after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Can't find a tissue? Sneeze or cough into your elbow instead of your hands.
Flu Prevention: Vaccines
Get a flu vaccine. They're made of harmless versions of flu virus to help your body recognize and fight it if exposed to the real thing. Despite what you may hear, they don't give you the flu.
They're especially important for children older than 6 months, pregnant women, adults older than 50, and people with chronic illness or suppressed immune systems.
Healthy children 2 years old and older and nonpregnant healthy adults under 50 can opt for the nasal mist vaccine.
Is Swine Flu (H1N1) Still a Threat?
The swine flu pandemic officially ended in 2010. Current flu vaccines protect against swine and seasonal flu. Swine flu and the regular seasonal flu share many symptoms: cough, sore throat, fever (although not everyone with flu gets a fever), and body aches. But many people with swine flu also develop stomach problems, such as vomiting and diarrhea.
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American Lung Association: "A Survival Guide for Preventing and Treating Influenza and the Common Cold."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cold Versus Flu," "Influenza Symptoms and Laboratory Diagnostic Procedures," "What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs," "Questions and Answers: Cold versus Flu," "Questions and Answers: Swine Flu and You," "Key Facts about Swine Influenza (Swine Flu)," "CDC Clean Hands Campaign," "Clean Hands Save Lives," "Stop the Spread of Germs."
FDA: "Colds and Flu: Time Only Sure Cure,""Hand Washing."
National Jewish Medical and Research Center: "Is It a Cold or the Flu?"
UpToDate: "Clinical Manifestations and Diagnosis of Influenza in Adults," "The Common Cold in Adults: Diagnosis and Clinical Features."
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.