Do I have a cold or the flu?
Dr. Grant Taylor is a family practioner at Banner Health Center in Fort Collins. For more information on this topic, talk with your doctor or call (970) 821-4600.
Question: How do I know the difference between a cold and the flu?
Answer: A cold is a mild illness that affects the respiratory system and usually lasts for a few days. Influenza, or "the flu," is a much more serious illness that typically persists for a week or longer and can lead to other health complications and even hospitalizations. Recognizing the distinctions between the two is important to ensure you receive proper care.
A cold often starts with a sore throat, and later is marked by sinus congestion, runny nose, coughing, and mild aches. If a person develops a fever, it is usually low-grade. The first three days of the cold are normally the most uncomfortable, and then symptoms steadily improve. If symptoms last beyond a week, consult with a doctor to determine if a sinus infection or allergies might be the cause.
The flu, on the other hand, comes on quickly, symptoms are more intense, and they often occur together. Symptoms include headache, moderate to severe aches, fever, exhaustion, chills, coughing, congestion and sore throat. In some cases, a person with influenza will also experience diarrhea and vomiting.
Flu symptoms will usually begin to improve after five days, but those with influenza often complain about feeling tired or fatigued for a week or more. Pneumonia is a common complication of the flu, signaled by shortness of breath or fever that reappears after several days. A person with these symptoms or whose condition does not improve within a few days should see a doctor.
A vaccine is available to help protect against the flu, and is recommended for most individuals. The best way to prevent a cold or any virus is to wash hands regularly; avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth with your hands; and stay away from others who are sick.