The Difference Between the Flu And a Cold

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When the colder temperatures of fall and winter set in, people spend more time indoors where they are more likely to catch a cold or the flu from others. 

Although these are both respiratory illnesses with some common symptoms, the virus that causes a cold and the one that causes the flu are different and the flu virus may cause additional symptoms that need special treatment.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme fatigue, and a dry cough are more common, intense, and come on quite suddenly. You may go to bed Monday evening feeling fine and wake up Tuesday morning feeling like you have been “hit by a truck.” Colds are usually milder than the flu and come on gradually. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or complications requiring hospitalization.

Flu Symptoms

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms.  The flu virus occasionally causes severe symptoms which should be reviewed by your physician.  Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu, some of which can be life-threatening and result in death. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever or feverish/chills (though, not everyone with flu will have a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Extreme fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea, though more common in children than adults

People who are at high risk of developing serious complications like pneumonia if they get sick with the flu include those who:

  • Age 6 months through 4 years
  • Age 50 years and older
  • Have chronic pulmonary (including asthma), cardiovascular (except hypertension), renal, hepatic, neurologic, hematologic, or metabolic disorders (including diabetes)
  • Immunosuppressed (including immunosuppression caused by medications or by human immunodeficiency virus)
  • Or will be pregnant during the influenza season
  • Age 6 months through 18 years and receiving long-term aspirin therapy, which could put them at risk for title=Reye syndrome;healthinfo=Reye Syndrome after influenza virus infection
  • Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities
  • Morbidly obese (body-mass index is 40 or greater)
  • Health care personnel
  • Household contacts and caregivers of children younger than 5 years and adults 50 years and older (the flu vaccine is particularly recommended for anyone in contact of children aged younger than 6 months, as they are too young to be vaccinated)
  • Household contacts and caregivers of persons with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe complications from influenza

Family physician Anoopa Hodges, DO, talks about how you can protect someone you live with who is at high-risk of complications from the flu. 

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

Avoid Spreading the Flu

People with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most experts think the flu is spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.

An otherwise healthy adult may unknowingly infect others even one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. You may be able to pass the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.

Cold Symptoms

A cold’s symptoms can last for up to two weeks:

  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild head and body aches

Preventing And Treating a Cold

Individuals often go to their doctor hoping for a prescription for antibiotics. Antibiotics should not be used to treat a common cold. Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria.  Since colds are caused by a virus, antibiotics won’t cure a cold. In fact, not only will they not help; they may worsen the situation by allowing the virus to grow stronger.

Colds can be prevented.  The cold virus is often spread from one person to another by touching contaminated items and then the individual touching their nose, mouth, or eyes.  Thorough, frequent hand washing can often prevent catching a cold.  People should avoid touching surfaces in public places or sanitize those surfaces before using them.  This includes germy places such as shopping cart handles, drinking fountains, elevator and ATM buttons, phones, gym mats, etc.

If you do catch a cold, get rest, plenty of fluids, gargle with warm salt water, use a decongestant or saline nasal spray, use petroleum jelly for a raw nose, and take aspirin or acetaminophen for headache or fever. Over-the-counter medications may relieve some symptoms but will not prevent or shorten the length of the cold. 

Family physician Josh Ordway, MD, discusses whether a cold can turn into the flu.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

The CDC estimates that 100 million courses of antibiotics are prescribed by office-based physicians each year and approximately one half of those prescriptions are unnecessary. The American Academy of Family Physicians reminds people that antibiotics have little to no effect against viruses like the common cold.

Preventing the Flu

The best prevention for the flu is to get the flu shot.  Avoid touching particularly germy places such as shopping cart handles, drinking fountains, ATM buttons, playground equipment, phones, and the television remote. Wash your hands thoroughly if you do come into contact with these.

The CDC offers these other tips for preventing the flu:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away after using it.
  • Wash your hands frequently during flu season.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

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