Cold vs Flu: How Can You Tell?

Being able to distinguish between symptoms of the common cold and flu symptoms will help you determine the course of treatment much sooner, and you’ll be on your feet much sooner as well. Both ailments have some of the same symptoms, but the duration and severity differs and can vary from one person to the next.

Cold vs Flu Symptoms

Symptoms of the common cold may include:

  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild fatigue
  • Mild headache
  • Watery eyes

Flu symptoms also include common cold symptoms such as runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and sore throat, but may also include:

  • Chills and sweats
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • High fever (over 100°F)
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches, particularly in the arms, back and legs

When to Seek Medical Attention

Seek immediate medical attention if you have a cold and develop a fever of 103°F accompanied by chills, sweats and a cough that produces colored phlegm, have swollen glands, and severe sinus pain. Children require immediate medical attention if these symptoms occur:

  • A fever of 100.4°F in newborns up to 12 weeks old
  • A fever above 104°F in children of all ages
  • Fever lasting longer than 24 hours in children under 2 or lasting longer than three days in children over 2
  • Ear pain
  • Less urination than usual, a sign of dehydration
  • Abdominal pain and vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent crying

For the following individuals, the flu can develop into more serious conditions such as bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections and in some cases hospitalization.

  • Children under 5
  • Adults 65 and older
  • American Indians or Alaska Natives
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under 19 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Persons with weak immune systems
  • Individuals with a BMI over 40
  • Persons with chronic medical conditions

Treatment for the Cold and Flu

There’s no cure for the common cold, but there are medications and home remedies that will ease the symptoms. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) are effective for fever and headache and over-the-counter decongestant nasal drops and sprays can relieve congestion. Cough syrups may suppress a nagging cough, but should not be given to children under 2. Persons on medication shouldn’t take cough medicine before consulting with their doctor. Children under 3 months should not be given acetaminophen or decongestant drops and sprays. While aspirin is okay for children and teenagers with a cold, it is not recommended for the flu due to the link between aspirin and Reye’s syndrome.

Home remedies include plenty or rest, lots of fluids, chicken soup, gargling your throat with warm saltwater, or saline nasal drops for nasal congestion. (Saline nasal drops are safer for children.) You can also keep your room warm and use a humidifier to keep the air moist to help ease congestion and coughing.

If you belong to any of the high-risk groups for flu-related complications and think you have the flu, call your doctor right away. He may prescribe antiviral drugs that may reduce the length and severity of your symptoms and possibly prevent more serious conditions from developing.

By Ramie A Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT

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