Feeling miserable: Is it a cold or the flu?

Cold or Flu

Let’s say you went to bed one night feeling pretty good. Maybe a little tired, but it was a long day at work. When you wake up the next morning, you’ve got a sore throat and a stuffy nose. Plus, you’re pretty sure you have a fever.

Is it a cold or the flu? What do you think?

Devin Minior, MD, is the chief medical officer for Banner Urgent Care. He said deciding if it’s a cold or the flu depends on how quickly the symptoms set in.

“The flu is really going to be more of an abrupt onset,” Dr. Minior said. “The common cold is usually a more gradual onset.”

Cold vs. flu symptoms

The common cold and the flu tend to have similar symptoms. While similar, there are some notable differences.

Dr. Minior said people who have the flu will usually have a high fever, and they will feel achy and generally weak. They might have a cough with some associated chest pain. Sometimes, they may have a headache, sore throat or sinus pain. 

When someone has a cold, he or she will be less likely to have a fever, according to Dr. Minior. He or she will likely have the classic symptoms of a cough and congestion and may have some shortness of breath. 

Our graphic helps explain the difference in the timing and frequency of symptoms.

Cold Flu Infographic

Treatment options

When you’re sick, you want to get better, and when you have the flu, timing matters. 

“If it's the flu and you catch the patient within the first couple days, or if it's a patient who's in a higher risk group, you'll typically treat that patient with an antiviral medication, as well as supportive care,” Dr. Minior said. 

The most common antiviral used for the flu is Tamiflu. Dr. Minior noted it's generally effective at reducing the duration of symptoms if you catch the patient in the first 48 hours. Tamiflu or another antiviral may also be prescribed to higher risk patients, including young children, older adults or patients with underlying cardiac or respiratory illnesses. 

Dr. Minior said studies on Tamiflu looked at 48 hours, and generally, the biggest benefit was seen when treatment began within this time frame. The benefit was much less if treatment with Tamiflu started after 48 hours.

If you’ve ever wondered why your doctor doesn’t give you antibiotics for the flu, Dr. Minior explained:

“Antibiotics are great for a bacterial infection – but unfortunately the flu is a virus. There are antiviral medications that can be given in certain circumstances, but antibiotics generally won’t be effective for a viral illness.”

Supportive care treats symptoms to help the patient feel a little better. This would include taking fever reducers, such as Motrin or Tylenol, drinking plenty of fluids and getting rest.

For a cold, Dr. Minior said supportive care is the way to go, and that includes staying well hydrated.

“So, if you're having the common symptoms of a regular cold, like cough, congestion, maybe mild sinus pain, you can certainly try over-the-counter medications first,” Dr. Minior said. 

After exhausting all your over-the-counter options and you still don’t feel well, you should head in to a Banner Urgent Care for some follow-up care.

Of course, the best way to combat the flu is not to get it, which means you should get your annual flu shot. Most likely, you’ve heard a fair share of misinformation about the flu shot over the years. Our experts clear a lot of those myths up in “Expert Answers to Common Questions about the Flu Shot.” Be sure to head over and read it, too.

For some other tips to avoid the flu, be sure to check out “Want to Avoid the Cold and Flu? Don’t Make These Mistakes…” on the blog.

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  • Linda Smith says:
    This was a great article.  My husband and I have been ill since Thanksgiving and didn't know if we had the flu or a cold.  Next time we have the symptoms, we will see our doctor.  I loved the chart and printed the article for future reference.  Thank you.
  • Callum Palmer says:
    It is good to know the symptoms of both the flue and the common cold.  Once winter hits, I'll probably get one of the two.  If that does happen, I will for sure see about going to a doctor as I don't want to be out of work for long.

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