You wake up in the morning sniffling, achy and with a sore throat. Your foggy brain struggles to function and panic sets in as you wonder: Is this just a cold that will pass or is it the flu?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between the common cold and flu. Many of the symptoms overlap, but they are two separate illnesses. While a cold can leave you feeling awful for a few days, it is a milder respiratory illness typically caused by rhinoviruses or respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV).
Seasonal flu is caused by influenza viruses that infect the throat, nose and sometimes the lungs. The symptoms come on suddenly, and the illness can be deadly. Complications from influenza can result in serious medical problems, including pneumonia.
The 2017-2018 flu season was the deadliest in four decades, with more than 80,000 flu-related deaths and 900,000 hospitalizations. Young children, pregnant women and older adults are at the greatest risk of serious complications.
You can help protect your family from seasonal flu by getting an annual influenza shot. Vaccination has been shown to have many benefits including reducing the risk of contracting the flu, flu-related hospitalizations and flu-related death in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Ask your doctor about special vaccines and antiviral medications for children, older adults and pregnant women.
Here’s how to spot the difference between a common cold and the flu.
What are symptoms of the common cold?
The common cold tends to produce mild symptoms lasting about one week. It begins with a sore throat that improves within a day or two. A stuffy or runny nose, nasal congestion and cough are common symptoms that often appear four to five days into the illness. A high fever is uncommon, but a slight fever is possible.
What are symptoms of the flu?
Sudden onset is typical of the flu. Unlike a cold, where you may feel symptoms setting in for several days, the flu can knock you off your feet in just three to six hours. Most flu symptoms improve within five days, but it’s not unheard of for influenza to linger for weeks.
Severe symptoms including chills, widespread aches, tiredness, severe chest discomfort, headache, hacking and an intense dry cough are common. Influenza can also affect the lungs, resulting in pneumonia, respiratory failure and even death. If the virus infects the intestinal tract, vomiting or diarrhea may occur.
The best way to tell if you have a cold or the flu
Take your temperature. If you are running a fever, you most likely have the flu. The common cold rarely causes a fever; with the flu, a fever can last three to four days.
Times of year for the cold vs. the flu
Flu season in the United States typically runs between November and March, whereas the common cold is year-round. Both spread quickly during the winter months, when people are traveling for the holidays and spending more time indoors with groups of people. You can help prevent spreading both the common cold and seasonal flu by washing your hands often and covering your mouth when you cough. For either illness, it’s critical to drink plenty of fluids and rest.
While flu season typically spans from winter into spring, cases start appearing as early as September. That’s why medical experts advise getting a flu shot before the end of October, especially if you’re over the age of 65 and at greater risk for complications.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect your children, aging loved ones and yourself from the flu. Check the CDC’s website to find the closest flu clinic near you or to get updates on the flu season in your area.