Banner Health Services  

Is this the flu or just a cold?

Dr. Benes  

Frank Benes, MD, is Emergency department medical director at Banner Baywood Medical Center.

Question: How do I know if I have the flu or just a cold?

Answer: The symptoms of a cold and flu are often very similar and initially may be difficult to tell apart: muscle aches, cough and chest discomfort are frequently present in both illnesses. 

If you have a runny or stuffy nose and a sore throat, you probably have a cold. If your symptoms include a fever over 100 degrees Farenheit, you feel achy all over, have chills, headache and feel fatigued, you probably have the flu. Overall, flu symptoms are more severe than those of a cold.

Both illnesses are caused by a virus that affects the respiratory system and is spread from person to person by direct contact, or through coughing and sneezing infected droplets into the air. Because the infections are caused by viruses, they will not respond to antibiotic treatment.

The initial treatment for both illnesses should include lots of fluids, plenty of rest, over-the-counter cough medicines and decongestants as needed. If the symptoms last more than a week or are associated with a high fever, cough productive of a colored sputum or phlegm, or difficulty breathing or dehydration, patients need to be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible.

Most people who contract a cold or flu will recover within one to two weeks. Occasionally, people with the flu develop life-threatening illnesses such as pneumonia, severe dehydration or worsening of a chronic medical condition and will need to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.

The best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated every year. Vaccinations are typically available in October/November each year, prior to the start of the flu season. The flu season typically runs from December through March and peaks in January. Getting your flu shot early is best but getting a flu shot later during the season may still provide protection.

Emergency physicians highly recommend that persons who are at high risk of having serious flu complications and people who live with or care for high flu-risk individuals get vaccinated each year.
Persons in the high-risk category include:

  • Children 6 months through age 5
  • Pregnant women
  • Persons age 50 and older
  • Persons with chronic medical conditions
  • Persons in nursing homes and long-term care facilities

Getting the flu shot does not guarantee that you will not get the flu, but generally those people who get the flu after getting a flu shot, will have a milder illness. 

Page Last Modified: 08/15/2011
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