It is important to know the difference between the common cold and the seasonal flu. A cold can make you ill for a few days as it is a milder respiratory illness. Whereas the flu can make you feel ill from a few days to a few weeks, the flu can also result in hospitalizations and other health complications like pneumonia. So, do you have a cold or flu?

Although the cold and flu share some similar symptoms, there are ways to tell what you have and how to take care of yourself. A good way to tell which you have is to take your temperature. The common cold rarely comes with a fever above 100.4F (38C). Below is a table that compares the symptoms of cold and flu

SymptomsColdFlu
FeverSometimes, usually mildUsual – higher than 100-102F (37.7 – 40C). Occasionally higher, especially in young children). Lasts 3 to 4 days
HeadacheOccasionallyCommon
General Aches, PainsSlightUsual. Often severe
Fatigue, WeaknessSometimesUsual. Can last 2 to 3 weeks
Extreme ExhaustionNeverUsual. At the beginning of the illness
Stuffy NoseCommonSometimes
SneezingUsualSometimes
Sore ThroatCommonSometimes
Chest Discomfort, CoughMild to moderate, hacking coughCommon. Can become severe
ComplicationsSinus congestion, middle ear infectionSinusitis, bronchitis, ear infection, pneumonia - can be life-threatening
PreventionWash hands often. Avoid close contact with anyone with a coldWash hands often. Avoid close contact with anyone who has flu symptoms. Get the annual flu vaccine
TreatmentDecongestants, pain reliever/fever reducer medicinesDecongestants, pain relievers, or fever reducers are available over-the-counter. Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to young children unless indicated. Prescription antiviral drugs for flu may be given in some cases. Call your doctor for more information about treatment

When do I call the doctor with cold or flu symptoms?

If you already have flu or cold symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention if you also have any of the following severe symptoms:

  • Persistent fever
  • Painful swallowing
  • Persistent coughing
  • Persistent congestion and headaches

In adults, signs of an emergency include:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Severe headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Persistent vomiting

In children, additional signs of an emergency are:

  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Lethargy and failure to interact normally
  • Extreme irritability or distress
  • Symptoms that were improving and then suddenly worsen
  • Fever with a rash

 


Sources: Mayo Clinic Patient information Flu vs. Cold, Laura J. Martin, MD for WebMD

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