Is It a Cold or the Flu? How to Spot the Difference

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The 2014-2015 flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst flu seasons in decades in terms of the number of flu cases and the fatalities associated with the virus. Currently, the most active strain of the virus circulating throughout the country is a more severe strain of the illness that tends to result in more hospitalizations and deaths, so it is particularly important to know the difference between the cold and the flu as the winter season continues. Read on to determine if your case of the sniffles is simply a common cold or a more severe flu.

Comparing symptoms

The cold and the flu are both viruses that affect the respiratory system, so there will be some overlap in noticeable symptoms. However, the duration of the illness and a few select symptoms will be different for each virus.

Onset of symptoms – With a cold, the progression of symptoms tends to start out with a sore throat that later evolves to a runny nose, congestion, and a mild cough. Flu symptoms tend to erupt quickly and all at once with sudden fever, cough, aches, congestion, and sore throat.

Flu signs – Fever is much more likely with the flu than with the cold virus. Adults rarely have a fever with a cold, but if one is present, it will be a low-grade fever. Flu has a much larger risk for high-grade fever, which can contribute to hospitalization for the illness. With the flu, you might also have more gastrointestinal discomfort including vomiting and diarrhea.

Cold signs – Cold symptoms tend to be overall less severe, so you may be able to complete your daily routine even while you are sick. Still, you should be extra cautious about the spread of germs during the first few days of symptoms, since this is when the virus is most contagious. A cold will typically only last for one week, but the flu can persist for several weeks and be much more restrictive with the need for bed rest.

Possible complications

Knowing what illness you have is important not only for ensuring that you take the right medication, but also for preventing possible complications. Cold complications are not life-threatening, but they can cause you to stay sick for much longer than usual. Ear infections and sinus infections are the most common complications of the cold, and these will generally require antibiotic medications prescribed by your doctor to clear up. With the flu, the complications are a bigger concern, because they can be life-threatening—especially in high-risk populations like the elderly or individuals with immune deficiencies. The use of antiviral medication at the onset of flu symptoms can prevent complications later in the illness such as bronchitis or pneumonia.

MeMD can help you identify the cause of your seasonal illness symptoms and make sure that you are on the right track to a complication-free recovery. To quickly see if your symptoms are the result of the flu, take our convenient quiz to find out if you have a cold or the flu.