Is It A Cold Or The Flu? How To Tell The Difference.

You feel tired, weak, achy and overall lousy. Your nose is running, your throat hurts, you’re sneezing and coughing, you have a headache and you’re running a fever. Do you have a cold or the flu? Is the flu even something you should still worry about in April?

What’s the difference between a cold and the flu?

If you can’t tell if you have a cold or the flu, it’s no wonder. Because they have similar symptoms, it can be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. Tests that must be done within the first few days of the illness can identify whether a person has the flu.

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses but are caused by different viruses

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold and symptoms are more intense, whereas colds are usually milder and people with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to 2-3 weeks. Also, colds generally do not result in serious associated complications, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations, but with the flu, this is a very real concern.

                                                                                                                                              Courtesy of the CDC

Flu symptoms

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses.  According to the New York State Department of Health alert on March 28, influenza season continues and there has been an increase in influenza A.  People suffering from the flu typically experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish (but not everyone with the flu will have a fever)
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)

Complications from the flu

Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to two weeks, but some develop complications, some of which can be life-threatening or even fatal. These complications can include:

  • Sinus and ear infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of the muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues
  • Multi-organ failure (e.g., respiratory and kidney failure)
  • An inflammatory response in the body which can lead to sepsis (life-threatening response to infection)

The flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition.

How the flu is spread

The flu virus is spread predominantly through droplets in the air, so if you are with 3-6 feet of someone who is infected, you can easily breathe in their germs in their exhaled breath. The virus then latches onto the mucous membranes that line the back of your nose, throat and bronchial tubes. Eventually, your body’s immune system releases proteins called interferons which produce the fever, headache and muscular aches and pains that distinguish the flu from a common cold.

People at high risk for flu complications

Anyone can get the flu and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age, but some people are particularly at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications. These include:

  • People 65 years and older
  • People with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease)
  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than 2 years

Emergency warning signs of the flu

In children
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up
  • Not interacting
  • Being so irritable that he/she does not want to be held, inconsolable
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever, and cough gets worse
  • Fever with a rash
In adults
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever, and cough gets worse
In addition to the signs above, GET MEDICAL HELP RIGHT AWAY OR CALL 911 for an infant with any of these signs:
  • Unable to eat
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

Common cold symptoms

Though certainly no fun to live with, cold symptoms are generally milder than those of the flu and usually last for about a week. A cold often begins with a sore throat which tends to go away after a day or two. A runny nose and congestion follow, along with a cough by the fourth and fifth days. Fever is not typical in adults, but a slight fever is possible. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold.

Dark mucus in the nose is natural and does not necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection. (If cold symptoms do not improve after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics.)

Fight the flu: get vaccinated!

At Westchester Health, we strongly believe that everyone should get immunized against the flu (the flu shot). In almost all cases, getting the flu shot prevents the disease, prevents it from spreading, and prevents deaths. Even in years when the flu vaccine is less effective, it is still very important to get it.  A flu vaccine can lessen the severity of the illness if it does not completely prevent it.

In the absence of a pandemic, a severe flu year still kills nearly 650,000 people worldwide, and even a mild year kills around 300,000. In recent years, the CDC estimates that the flu has killed about 12,000 Americans in mild years and 56,000 in moderately severe ones.

To learn more, watch these 3 videos from the CDC

Worried that you or a family member has the flu? Come see us.

To know for sure, make an appointment with Westchester Health to see one of our Family Medicine physicians. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, perhaps perform some tests, then recommend the best course of treatment so that hopefully you can feel better soon. And if you don’t have the flu, there are many recommendations we can make to help support you through a cold as well. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

Appointment CTA

By Meghan Auten, MD, a Family Medicine physician with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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