Is it a Cold or the Flu? Here’s How to Know!

Article Categories: Diseases & Environment

Fall always brings the cold and flu season. Suddenly your family, co-workers, and patients start to sniffle and sneeze. Even though you’ve had your flu shot, you may still be worried that you’ll get sick or infect others.

How can you tell the difference between a cold and its more serious cousin, the flu? The symptoms may be similar, especially at first. A doctor can order a throat swab for a definite flu diagnosis, but not many of us can get to the office as soon as we feel a scratchy throat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer these helpful guidelines:


• Stuffy or runny nose
• Sore or scratchy throat
• Sneezing
• Cough
• Headache
• Mild fatigue
• Possible body aches
• Possible mild fever

Here’s what to do: Colds are contagious during the first few days, so stay home. You can rest and avoid spreading the virus. Drink plenty of liquids and treat the symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as decongestants, antihistamines, and pain relievers such as acetaminophen. Because colds are caused by a virus, antibiotics are not useful.

Colds usually get better within a week. If your cold lasts longer, you feel worse, or you are running a temperature, make an appointment with your doctor. Also call your doctor if your cough continues or gets worse. You may have bronchitis or asthma.


• Symptoms may be the same as a cold, but quickly get more severe
• Chills throughout the body
• Throbbing headache
• Tight feeling in the chest
• Dry, hacking cough
• Severe body aches
• Extreme fatigue
• Possible high fever, up to 102 degrees
• Possible diarrhea or vomiting

Here’s what to do: Absolutely stay home and rest. (You won’t feel like going out, anyway.) Drink fluids to avoid dehydration. Some OTC medications, such as decongestants and acetaminophen, may relieve your symptoms. If you can get to your doctor, or obtain a prescription, within 48 hours of when your symptoms start, there are some antiviral drugs that can shorten the illness.

Call your doctor if you suddenly feel worse or you continue to feel sick for more than a week. Be alert for signs of pneumonia: difficulty breathing, green mucus when coughing, a high fever that doesn’t go away, or discomfort in the chest.

Preventing colds and flu begins with basic skills:

• Proper hand washing
• Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth with your hands
• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
• Healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
• Exercise regularly
• Manage stress
• Stay away from others who have symptoms
• Get a flu shot every year, as early as October


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