How to Tell if You Have a Cold or the Flu

Colds and the flu are often lumped in together, and for good reason. They’re both respiratory illnesses that uptick around the same time of year (those chilly winter months). They also have similar symptoms: sneezing, stuffy noses, sore throats, you know the drill. So it can be difficult to tell if your sore throat and fatigue are signs of a common cold, or of the more serious influenza virus. Yet, as similar as the cold and flu are, there are some major differences — and it’s important to be able to tell them apart, especially once you’ve come down with one.

A common cold tends to be milder than the flu, and less dangerous. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that influenza-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of 12,000 a year (during 2011-2012) to a high of 56,000 (during 2012-2013). But it’s impossible to know exactly how many people die from the flu, because it can cause complications like pneumonia, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and therefore the flu itself might not be listed on a death certificate — which is how the CDC tallies up how dangerous different illnesses are.

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Needless to say, it’s much more risky to have the flu than to catch a cold (especially if you have a weak immune system, are elderly, pregnant, or a child), which is why the CDC urges people to get their flu shot every year. “It’s hard for people to understand that the cold and flu can have overlapping symptoms, but they’re two different problems,” says Abinash Virk, MD, of the infectious disease department at Mayo Clinic Health System.

Cold and Flu Symptoms Are Different

Both the flu and the common cold are caused by viruses, according to the CDC, but they’re caused by different viruses. So while some symptoms overlap, there are differences in the severity and likelihood of symptoms. People who have colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than people who have the flu. A cold rarely results in fever, while the flu usually does. The influenza virus also commonly causes chills, while a cold does not. And if you have a headache on top of all your other symptoms, it’s more likely that you have the flu than a cold, according to the CDC.

The onset of these symptoms is also much more sudden for the flu, and the influenza virus can cause complications like bacterial infections, pneumonia, and other respiratory health problems that the cold virus will not.

How to Prevent the Flu and Common Colds

While you should try to prevent a cold if you can, it’s often no big deal (you’ll need to keep a tissue box close at hand, and you may want some over the counter meds) you should do all you can to avoid the flu.

Keeping yourself flu-free starts before flu season: Each year, the flu vaccine protects against different flu virus strains, so it’s a good idea to get your flu shot as soon as it’s available (though it’s never too late!). Also year-round, you want to wash your hands and keep them away from your face to prevent the spread of germs, get plenty of sleep, and drink lots of water. These are not just helpful life hacks; they keep your immune system strong.

If you do feel flu-like symptoms coming on, get to your doctor or even an urgent care clinic asap, says Hannah Miller, M.D., a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System. There’s now a quick test to find out if you have the flu, and antiviral medications are most effective in the first 48 hours. If you’ve been diagnosed with the flu, stay home — it’s incredibly contagious, and limiting its spread is the best thing you can do (for those you may come in contact with, that is). If it turns out you’ve just been hit with a cold, treat it exactly how you feel you need to: resting, hydrating, and, sure, catching some extra daytime TV.

 

 Instead of self-care, let’s talk about self-maintenance. This month, we’re focusing on whatever it takes to get by.

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