Is it a Cold or the Flu?

Your throat is scratchy. You feel tired. You can’t stop coughing. Do you have a case of the common cold, or could it be the flu?

Both the cold and the flu are respiratory illnesses. Though the cold and flu can feel very similar at first, colds tend to be minor and not a major disruption to your life. However, flu symptoms tend to be more severe, and the flu can become dangerous in some cases.

Common cold symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Mild fever
  • Muscle aches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat

Common flu symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat

Because the two illnesses can seem so similar, if you’re at high risk for flu complications and develop a fever accompanied by other flu symptoms, call your doctor. How do you know if you are high risk? The list includes the elderly, children, pregnant women, those with a weakened immune system because of cancer treatment or HIV/AIDS or any other condition, people with a chronic lung or heart condition, those with asthma, diabetes, anemia or kidney disease, those who are morbidly obese, nursing home residents, or anyone who has chronic health problems or who has been advised by their physician that they are at risk of flu complications.

Keep Your Illness to Yourself

Colds are contagious the first few days, so if you can stay home and rest, you can help prevent transmitting your illness to others. Wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. Nothing has been proven to “cure” the common cold, but treatment of symptoms with over-the-counter medications can help you feel less miserable. Do not give any aspirin-containing medication to a child with cold or flu symptoms, as it can cause a potentially fatal condition called Reye’s syndrome. Do not ask your doctor for an antibiotic; antibiotics treat only bacterial infections, not viral infections like colds and flues. For a cold, rest, drink lots of fluids and wait for the cold to run its course, about two weeks.

If it’s the flu, however, three FDA-approved antiviral treatments can help: Tamiflu, Relenza and Rapivab. These drugs can help prevent certain flu complications, including pneumonia. However, you need to start them within the first 48 hours of getting sick for them to work most effectively. That reinforces how important it is to contact your doctor immediately if you are at risk of flu complications. Two of the drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, can be taken by children, so call your child’s doctor right away if you suspect your child has the flu.

Prevention

For the common cold, there’s little to do except to try to keep yourself healthy, avoid sick people and wash your hands often. For the flu, medical authorities recommend an annual flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lots of information about this year’s vaccine at ccdc.gov.