Over-the-counter drugs and chicken soup help both, right? Not so fast.
It's important to learn which kind of illness you're dealing with. That's because the flu can have serious complications, like the lung infection pneumonia. It can even be deadly. Flu treatments work best within 48 hours of the time symptoms start. 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. Symptoms like sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches, congestion, and cough tend to come on suddenly. Colds are usually less intense and include a runny or stuffy nose. The flu gets better over 2 to 5 days, but you might feel run-down for a week or longer. Colds come on slowly and last about a week.
Fever: Usually Means Flu
While some people may get a slight fever when they have a cold, most don’t. If you have the flu, you’ll probably run a temperature of 100-102 degrees or higher. Children's flu fevers tend to be higher. Kids may also be more likely to have a fever with the common cold.
Flu: Fatigue Can Last for Weeks
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 seniors and people with long-term (chronic) diseases or a weak immune system. With a cold, you usually feel bad for just a few days.
Colds and Flu: Both Can Cause Headaches
Still, a headache that comes along with a cold, like other symptoms that result from the virus, tends to be milder than one caused by flu.
Coughs: Sign of Both Colds and Flu
Colds and flu are respiratory illnesses, which affect your airways, so 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, a hard time breathing, shortness of breath, or chest pain when you cough -- or if you hack up yellow-green or bloody phlegm.
Earaches: Can Come From Colds or Flu
Both ailments irritate the eustachian tube that connects your throat to your middle ear. This can cause dull or burning pain. Cold- and flu-related earaches usually go away by themselves.
See your doctor if the ache lasts longer than your sickness or you feel sudden, strong pain. You may have an ear infection that needs treatment.
Colds: Often Start With Sore Throat
This early symptom tends to last for 1 to 2 days. A runny and stuffy nose is also common. Sore throats come with the flu, too. But if you have it, you’ll probably have fatigue and other symptoms that come on all at once.
Stuffy Nose: May Mean a Cold
Unless you're also feverish, very achy, and just plain zapped of energy, you likely have a cold -- although many people with the flu also say they have a stuffy nose and sneezing.
Both colds and the flu can lead to sinus infections. These are marked by a deep and constant pain around your cheekbones, forehead, or the bridge of the nose. The pain usually gets worse with sudden head movement or strain. You’ll need a doctor to treat a sinus infection.
Flu Swab Tests Can ID Flu Fast
The quickest and best way to know which illness you have 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 the test shows you have the flu and your symptoms started within the last 48 hours, your doctor may suggest antiviral medicine to help you recover more quickly.
Flu: Start Antiviral Drugs ASAP
These medications can make you feel better and shorten your illness by 1 to 2 days -- if you start them within 2 days of getting sick. Over-the-counter products can also lessen some symptoms like a cough and congestion. Read labels and instructions carefully so you understand what it does and how to take it.
Colds: OTC Drugs Can Ease Symptoms
Drugstore medicines like decongestants, cough suppressants, and antihistamines can help congestion, coughing, and nasal symptoms. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen can treat pain or a 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. Don't give aspirin to a child under 18. Using it to treat the flu has been linked to a condition called Reye’s syndrome in kids.
Hand-Washing Is Key
Wash your hands well so you don’t spread the flu to other people. Use soap and warm water. Rub your hands together for 20 seconds. Don't forget the areas 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 you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose. Can't find a tissue? Sneeze or cough into your elbow instead of your hands.
Get a flu shot. It's made from harmless versions of the flu virus, and it helps your body recognize and fight when you're exposed to the real thing. Despite what you may hear, it doesn't give you the flu.
It's especially important for children older than 6 months, pregnant women, adults older than 50, and people with long-term (chronic) illness or weak immune systems.
Healthy children 2 years and older and healthy adults under 50 who aren't pregnant can opt for the nasal mist vaccine.
Is Swine Flu (H1N1) Still a Threat?
The swine flu pandemic officially ended in 2010. Current vaccines protect against swine and seasonal flu. Both types share many symptoms: cough, sore throat, fever (although not everyone with the flu gets a fever), and body aches. But many people with swine flu also get stomach problems, like 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.