How to distinguish a cold from the flu?

Updated on September 22, 2021

Cold and flu might have similar symptoms but these are two different illnesses. Read this article to get to know how to tell them apart, treat and prevent them.

Common cold and influenza (also known as flu) are both respiratory illnesses caused by viruses. They are both contagious and not treated with antibiotics as it  is effective only against bacteria. The flu and colds have similar symptoms and it might be challenging to distinguish one from the other. From this article, you’ll get to know about the differences between the two illnesses as well as the ways to diagnose, cure and prevent them.

What Are the Symptoms?

No matter which of the two illnesses you have, you might suffer from the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fever

If you have a cold, the symptoms should be rather mild. They usually develop in about 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus and you should be able to get rid of them within a maximum of 10 days. After most symptoms subside, selected ones might linger for several days or weeks more (such as cough or fatigue). During this time, you won’t be feeling good — but you might not need to take a sick leave.

If the cold symptoms last more than 10 days or continue to worsen, you should visit a doctor. To find the best specialist in your area, you might want to use Tripment.

The flu typically lasts up to two weeks and is accompanied by a higher fever (102 degrees F or higher). Compared to cold, its symptoms are more severe and tend to come on more suddenly. Flu might cause serious complications, such as sinus or ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.

The exact symptoms and duration of both diseases depend on which virus has caused them. The stronger your immune system, the sooner you’ll be well again. People who stick to a healthy  diet, exercise regularly, avoid stress, and sleep at least 7 hours daily recover faster than anyone else.

What Are the Risk Factors of the Flu and Colds?

People who meet at least one of the following criteria have higher risks of catching a colds or the flu.

  • Aged younger than 6 or older than 65. Children who visit daycare or school are more likely to catch the flu or cold than their peers who stay at home. Elderly people might have more severe complications than younger patients.
  • Pregnancy. Ladies in their second or third trimester should take measures to prevent colds and the flu. Scientists suspect that the immune system of future mothers changes during pregnancy and becomes more susceptible to viruses.
  • Smoking. This habit makes one’s respiratory system more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses as well as complications.
  • Compromised immune system. Be it AIDS, HIV or cancer, certain chronic illnesses increase the odds of catching a cold or the flu. It becomes easier for viruses to infiltrate the organism.

People tend to catch colds and flu more often between October and May. However, the viruses that cause these diseases remain active all year round.

How to Diagnose Colds and the Flu?

If the doctor suspects that you have the flu, they might use a rapid influenza diagnostics test. Swab samples from the nose or back of the throat will show whether you have influenza viral antigens or not. You should get to know the results in less than half an hour but this test is not 100% accurate. For higher accuracy, you should have a test in a hospital or specialized laboratory.

As for the common cold, no tests have been developed to diagnose it yet. If the doctor suspects that you could have pneumonia or strep throat, they might order you an X-rays or some other tests.

How to Treat Colds and the Flu?

There is no cure for either of these illnesses. However, certain over-the-counter options might help you to relieve their symptoms: lessen headaches and body aches, decongest the nose and sinuses, ease cough and throat pain.

When you have the flu, the doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs to you. They can shorten the time you’re sick — provided that you take them within two days of the appearance of the symptoms. Such drugs help high-risk patients avoid serious complications.

However, cold medicines might have side effects. For instance, aspirin might cause Reye’s syndrome among children and teenagers — and this is a potentially life-threatening condition. With adults, some popular drugs might raise blood pressure.

Potential Complications

Enteroviruses that often cause the common cold might cause brain lining inflammation that leads to the following complications:

  • Confusion
  • High fever
  • Neck stiffness
  • Difficulty looking at bright lights
  • Severe headaches

As a result of the flu or colds, people might suffer from secondary or bacterial infections. This might lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus or ear infections.

If you already have some pre-existing   conditions, the flu might worsen them. For instance, it might trigger asthma attacks.

Some of the most severe flu complications are brain inflammation illnesses (such as meningitis or encephalitis) and heart infections (such as myocarditis or pericarditis). But that would be a rare case.

How to Prevent the Flu and Colds?

The most efficient approach to preventing the flu is to get vaccinated every year. This recommendation is relevant for everyone aged 6 months and older. The vaccines might not be perfect — but they do protect people against viruses.

No vaccine had been developed yet to prevent the spread of the common cold. The viruses that cause this disease spread from person to person through close contact, air and respiratory secretions. To prevent the disease, you should practice good hygiene. You should wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds at a time and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this information came in handy and now you better understand the specifics of the flu and the common cold as well as the difference between them. The symptoms of the latter are milder than those of the former. There is a vaccine against flu — but there is no vaccine against the common cold yet.

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