Flu vs. Cold: How to Tell the Difference

Colds and flu are caused by different viruses, but they share a number of symptoms. Generally speaking, flu is more severe and comes on quickly. If you’re an adult, having a temperature above 101 degrees is an indication that you may have flu. Body and muscle aches are also more common with the flu.

Some of the best preventive measures start with easy items such as practicing good hygiene.

What is the Common Cold?

With a cold, you are usually sick for about a week – and contagious for the first three days that you have symptoms. When you’re contagious, you should stay home and get some rest. A cold usually begins with a sore throat, which usually goes away after the first couple of days.

A sore throat is generally followed by sneezing, runny nose, and congestion, with a cough coming on by the fourth or fifth day. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold, but this is less common in adults.

What is the Flu?

Flu symptoms include a sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion and cough.  After two to five days, flu symptoms usually improve, but it’s not unusual for you to feel run down for a week or more.

A common complication is pneumonia, which may be signaled by shortness of breath. If you have shortness of breath – or a fever that comes back after being gone for a day or two – check with your doctor.

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When Should I Call the Doctor?

Cold or flu symptoms can generally be managed with at-home measures such as drinking plenty of fluids, getting more rest, using saline nasal drops, and gargling saltwater. You may require medical treatment if your fever lasts more than three days, you have painful swallowing, a persistent cough that lingers for two or three weeks, or persistent congestion and headaches, as those can be signs of other medical conditions, such as strep throat.

Taking Tamiflu – available by prescription – within 48 hours of showing symptoms, can reduce those symptoms. It is not a substitute for a flu shot.

How to Prevent Cold and Flu

While you can’t necessarily guarantee you’ll prevent contracting these viruses, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of transmission. Important prevention measures include:

Who Should Get a Flu Shot?

The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends flu vaccine for all persons six months of age and older. Those strongly encouraged to get a flu shot are:

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