Healthy Living

How Can I Tell the Difference Between the Flu and a Cold?

How Can I Tell the Difference Between the Flu and a Cold?

Key Takeaways

  • The flu can persist for a long period of time, whereas a cold may not last as long.
  • Symptoms of the flu include a high fever and muscle pain.

With similar symptoms, these two conditions are often very difficult to distinguish from each other. Look closer and you can tell them apart with ease. Now, why should you know whether it is a cold or a flu? Understanding the condition would help you to take the right medications. Moreover, it will also help you to avoid unnecessary doctor visits, particularly if it is a common cold. In general, a cold is a mild form of a respiratory illness, when compared to the flu. With a cold, one will feel uneasy for a few days, while with flu, the illness may extend for weeks. The flu may lead to other complications, like pneumonia.

The initial symptom of a cold is a sore throat, which reduces within a day or two. As sore throat subsides, other symptoms, like a runny nose and congestion, sets in. A mild fever may be noted in some cases, especially in children. The secretions in the nose may then gradually become thicker. These symptoms are caused by viruses, and number of viruses are known to trigger a cold. These symptoms may improve within a week, and if it continues, one may need to take antibiotics for a bacterial infection.

The most common symptoms of the flu include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Congestion
  • Cough

Flu symptoms also improve within four to five days. However, in some cases, the symptoms may continue for more than a week. The flu may lead to other complications, like pneumonia, particularly in people with heart and lung problems. Young and elderly people also have a high risk of developing pneumonia if they have the flu.

To differentiate between flu and cold symptoms, the following factors may be of help:

  • Onset of illness – Sudden onset indicates the flu, while a slow and gradual development shows a cold.
  • Fever – The flu is associated with a high fever, while mild fever is associated with a cold. A fever may be seen along with the chills, in the case of the flu, particularly in children.
  • Headache – A normal cold may not be associated with headache, except in few cases, while headaches commonly occur in the case of the flu.
  • Muscle pain – Achy muscles often point to the flu, while muscle pain is not very common with a cold.
  • Stuffy nose – A runny and stuffy nose is not very common in the flu, whereas that is a characteristic symptom of a cold.

In either case, remember to call a doctor if:

  • A fever persists
  • There is pain while swallowing
  • There is a persistent cough
  • There is persistent congestion