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The Difference Between the Flu and a Cold

Flu season generally runs from fall into the winter, though it can go as late as May. It coincides with what is considered to be the common cold season, which tends to run from September to April. This means there are two common, infectious respiratory illnesses at their peak at the same time. With the differing severities of both conditions, it can be helpful to identify which you have as early as possible, but how?

While both the cold and the flu can look similar, there are a few telltale signs that point to one or the other. Let’s look at a few of these, as well as when you should see a doctor (e.g., if you’re a senior with the flu).

The Common Cold

The less severe of the two illnesses, the common cold is the most common illness in the United States; Americans catch an estimated 1 billion colds each year! The common cold is actually a catch-all name for several different viruses — most commonly rhinoviruses or coronaviruses (but not COVID-19, which is more severe) — which is a major reason why we don’t have a vaccine for the cold yet.

Signs of A Cold

Common symptoms of the cold are:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Generally feeling unwell

As you can see, these are fairly mild symptoms. You won’t feel excellent for the duration of the illness — which is usually a week or two — but you shouldn’t feel absolutely horrible. If you’re still experiencing symptoms after 10 days, or your condition has worsened, it’s time to see a doctor, especially if you have a compromised immune system or if you’re a senior.

How to Treat the Common Cold

To be on the safe side, you should always consult a doctor on matters of your health. They can give you the best treatment advice based on your current health and your health history, family medical history, etc. The good news is that treatment for the cold can often be done at home with a mix of over-the-counter medicine — like pain killers and decongestants — and at-home remedies — plenty of rest and fluids like water. Funnily enough, the old wives’ tale about chicken soup for a cold is also true, which can make it worth trying if you’re feeling under the weather.

The Flu

While a cold sounds fairly mild and, while not pleasant, like not much more than an annoyance, the flu is worse. The flu is caused by an influenza virus, most commonly Influenza A or Influenza B. This consistency is why we’re able to have a vaccine, though the viruses can change — which is why we need a new vaccine each year.

Signs of the Flu

The flu shares several symptoms with the common cold, but they manifest in more severe ways. Usually, the symptoms of the flu are:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or congested nose
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

How to Treat the Flu

We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: To be on the safe side, you should always consult a doctor on matters of your health! They can give you the best treatment advice based on your current health and your health history, family medical history, etc. In many cases, the flu can be treated much like the cold, with bed rest and fluids. Besides rest and fluids, people can usually treat the flu with over-the-counter medications — like pain killers and decongestants. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. This medication can weaken the flu’s symptoms and reduce the time you have them.

What’s the Big Difference Between a Cold and the Flu?

The symptoms of both the cold and the flu are very similar. Both share runny noses, coughs, sore throats, fevers, and headaches. That’s five of the eight flu symptoms, and “general unwell feelings” from a cold could easily describe aches and fatigue from the flu. Suffice to say, it can be really easy to mix up a cold and a flu. The major difference is that one is more severe — killing tens of thousands of Americans each year — while the other is an annoyance for most. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there were 24,000 to 62,000 influenza deaths in the United States in the 2019/20 flu season. This is why we support everyone getting a flu shot each year (besides, if you’re a beneficiary of Medicare, it’s covered!).

The flu’s severity can be especially worrisome if you’re in an at-risk group, like those over 65 or those who have chronic health conditions. If you’re in one of these groups and have flu-like symptoms (even if you think it’s a cold), you should go to your doctor right away. This is a case of better safe than sorry!

There are ways you can try to tell whether or not you have a cold or a flu on your own. One of the primary signs that points toward the flu vs. a cold is how quickly the symptoms start. With a cold, you’ll develop symptoms gradually. The flu tends to come out of nowhere, effectively bulldozing you with symptoms. Some of the symptoms will also point one way or the other. While a fever, aches, fatigue, and chills are possible for a cold, they are much more common in the flu. Alternatively, if you’re experiencing the milder symptoms, like runny noses, sneezing, coughing, and a sore throat, it’s more likely a cold. You may still get the same symptoms of a cold, but if they’re severe, it’s worth visiting the doctor to be sure. It can also help to know that the flu also is likely to last for a shorter time than a cold, usually with symptoms letting up by a week. For those who’ve gotten a flu vaccine, you’ll likely have the flu for an even shorter time!

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With flu and cold season running for such a long period of the year, it pays to be smart and avoid getting sick all together. However, if you do get sick, being smart also includes knowing when to check with your doctor if you’re unsure if you have a cold or the flu. While there are ways to identify each illness, nothing beats a sound medical opinion! Whether a trip to the doctor is urgently needed or your next few days are filled with bed rest and chicken soup, we hope you feel better soon.