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Do I Have a Cold or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference

You went to bed feeling a little run-down but chalked it up to a tough week at work. Then hours later, you wake up shivering, feverish and achy.

Clearly, these symptoms aren’t due to stress. You wonder: “Could I be catching a cold, or do I have the flu?”

The common cold versus flu symptoms

When you’re feeling sick as a dog, it can be hard to tell the difference between cold and flu symptoms. Influenza and colds are two contagious viruses that share a lot of the same symptoms, but how you may experience those symptoms and how common they are is usually different.

“The common cold and flu both cause respiratory symptoms but are caused by different viruses,” said Devin Minior, MD, chief medical officer at Banner Urgent Care. “Often the symptoms can be very similar, but in general the flu tends to be worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense and may begin suddenly.”

While the flu will often surprise you with how quickly symptoms begin, here are some additional tell-tale differences to note.

5 ways to tell the difference between cold and flu symptoms

A cold doesn’t usually come with a high fever

You may run a little warm with a cold, but it rarely causes a significant fever. The flu typically causes a fever, and the fever will likely come on fast—especially in younger children. A fever with the flu can typically last three to four days.

The flu comes with muscle aches and pains

If you’re experiencing chills, body aches, headaches and severe fatigue (or exhaustion), you almost certainly have the flu. You may sometimes feel run down with a cold, but very rarely will you experience chills and body aches.

A stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat are common with a cold

If your nose is teeming with watery snot, you’re sneezing and have a scratchy throat, these are common symptoms of a cold. Although you can sometimes have a runny or stuffy nose or sore throat when you have the flu as well.

The flu can cause chest congestion and discomfort

A cold often produces mucus, so a wet, productive (phlegmy) cough is common. When you have the flu, it’s not uncommon to experience a dry cough with some mild pressure or tightness in your chest.

Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce symptoms of flu

RIDTs, also called flu antigen tests, help identify if you have influenza A or B and can help you get treated sooner. Early treatment with antiviral medications like Tamiflu may help lessen the symptoms of the flu.

“Antiviral treatment works best when started within two days of becoming sick with flu symptoms and can lessen fever and flu symptoms and shorten the time an individual remains sick,” Dr. Minior said. “Antivirals may also reduce the risk of complications such as ear infections in children, respiratory complications requiring antibiotics, and hospitalization in adults. For people with weakened immune systems or health problems that put them at higher risk of serious flu complications, early treatment with an antiviral drug can mean having milder illness instead of more severe illness.”

“A trip to your primary care provider or urgent care is recommended whenever you have difficulty breathing, chest pain, severe weakness with difficulty walking, vomiting and an inability to keep down food or water—or any other symptoms that are concerning to you,” Dr. Minior said.

However, some cases of the flu should be treated in an emergency department.

If you’ve ever wondered why your doctor doesn’t give you antibiotics for the flu, that’s because the flu is a virus and antibiotics only treat bacterial infections.

Cold and flu remedies to help you feel better

If you’re feeling under the weather – whether it’s the flu or a cold – it’s important to stay away from others. This includes staying home from work and school.

Take some time for yourself to rest and recuperate. Here are some supportive care tips that will help you feel a little better.

  • Sleep and rest your body. This is a perfect excuse to table work or schoolwork until you are well rested.
  • Take fever-reducing medications, such as Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). Other over-the-counter medications may help with cough or congestion.
  • Drink plenty of fluids but focus on water. You can sip on some warm tea with honey or some warm broth.

Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently and avoid close contact with others when you are sick.

After exhausting all over-the-counter options and you still don’t feel well, you should head to your primary care doctor or an urgent care for some follow-up care.

Get your flu shot

Of course, the best way to combat the flu is to not get it all. Vaccines help protect us and those around us from certain diseases by helping our bodies build immunity.

Getting your annual flu shot is easy and it can reduce your chances of severe illness and hospitalization. Flu shots are highly recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older, especially those who are pregnant or nursing and those who work with young children or who may be immunocompromised.

Talk to your health care provider about scheduling your flu shot. They are typically available in early September and are available through the start of the new year. 

For other tips on colds and flu, check out:

Infectious Disease Cold and Flu