Do I Have a Cold or The Flu?

What is the difference between a cold and flu?

The common cold and influenza (flu) are both contagious respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms, making it difficult to tell the difference between them, especially during the cold and flu season (late fall to early spring).

The key difference is that they are caused by different viruses. According to the CDC, flu is caused by influenza viruses only, while the common cold can be caused by various viruses, such as rhinoviruses and seasonal coronaviruses. Colds commonly do not result in serious health problems, but the flu can have serious complications associated with it, such as pneumonia or hospitalization. 

What are the symptoms of flu vs symptoms of a cold?

Although the symptoms are similar, there are a few slight differences that can help you tell between the common cold and the flu apart, although symptoms may differ in different age groups. Typically, cold symptoms are milder and more gradual than the flu, while flu symptoms are usually more intense and begin more abruptly. Additionally, a common cold is rarely accompanied by a fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you start feeling feverish quickly chances are you have the flu. However, the congestion, sneezing, and runny nose that come with the common cold are generally not as severe as the flu.

See the chart below for a comparison of Cold vs. Flu Symptoms:

Do you have a Cold or the Flu?

Source: CDC

Testing is the only sure way to distinguish what the virus might be. A visit to your medical provider or urgent care is suggested if you or child have a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, or respiratory symptoms that are persistent and worsening and interfering with sleep or eating. 

How long do these symptoms last and how long am I contagious?

Cold symptoms usually last for around a week, and you are contagious with a cold from a few days before your symptoms appear, and you could be contagious until your symptoms are gone. 

Flu symptoms usually slowly improve within two to five days, but they can last for a week or more. The contagious period for the flu begins about 1 day before symptoms start and can last as long as 5-7 days from when you first felt sick.

How do I know if I have the flu?

A dry cough that does not produce mucus is more common with influenza and you are also likely to have muscle aches, fatigue, and feel lousy fast. The only way to know for certain whether you are sick with the flu, is to go to your doctor or urgent care to get tested.

How can I prevent colds and flu?

To avoid colds and flu, the most effective prevention method is frequent, thorough hand washing. In addition to washing your hands often, you should also make sure you and your family stay up to date with an annual flu vaccine which are usually available starting in early September and it is recommended that everyone 6 months or older get vaccinated by the end of October.

Whether you’re experiencing severe cold or flu symptoms, our urgent care is available 24/7 to treat you and keep you and your family safe this cold and flu season. 

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