Is It a Cold? Or Is It the Flu? And What Do You Do?

With so many people affected by the common cold and the flu, it may seem impossible to avoid catching one, or both. But you can greatly reduce your chances. Arm yourself with the following information about the common cold and the flu—and don't be the next victim.

Is It A Cold or the Flu?

The symptoms for a cold and the flu are somewhat similar. This chart may help you determine which infection you may have.

Symptom Cold Flu
Fever Rare Usual, high (100ºF-102°F [37.8ºC-38.8°C]) last 3-4 days
Headache Rare Common
General aches, pains Slight Usual; often severe
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Usual, can last up to 2-3 weeks
Extreme exhaustion Never Usual; at the beginning of the illness
Stuffy nose Common Sometimes
Sneezing Usual Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough Mild to moderate, hacking cough Common; can become severe

Facts About the Common Cold

A cold is a minor infection of the throat and nose. More than 200 different viruses are known to cause symptoms of a cold—although rhinoviruses and coronaviruses cause the majority of them. Cold symptoms usually last about 1-2 weeks. Rarely, a cold can turn into a lower respiratory infection. This may be more common in young children and older adults.

Preventing a Cold

Colds are extremely contagious. A cold is transmitted by droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus. These droplets become airborne when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks. You contaminate yourself by inhaling these droplets or touching a surface that the viruses have landed on, and then touching your eyes or nose. To prevent getting a cold, take these simple precautions:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have a cold.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Do not touch your nose, eyes, or mouth. This will help you avoid infecting yourself with germs you may have picked up.

Avoid spreading your cold to others by:

  • Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away. If you do not have a tissue handy then put your arm up over your face and sneeze into your elbow. Sneezing onto your hands increases your likelihood of spreading the cold to others.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Limit close contact with others when you are sick.

Treating a Cold

Antibiotics will not cure a cold. In fact, nothing can cure a cold, except time. Certain self-care measures may help you reduce your discomfort. These include:

  • Take certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications. For example, acetaminophen helps to relieve any aches and fever, while decongestants and antihistamines may combat congestion. Use caution, though, when giving these medications to children.
    • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that OTC cough and cold products should not be used to treat infants or children less than 2 years old and supports not using them in children less than 4 years old. Rare but serious side effects have been reported, including rapid heart rates, convulsions, decreased levels of consciousness, and death. OTC cough and cold products include decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines, and cough suppressants. The FDA is still reviewing data concerning the safety of these products in children aged 2-11 years. There have been serious side effects reported in this age group as well.
  • Drink plenty of fluids every day. This will help keep you hydrated.
  • Avoid alcohol as it promotes dehydration.
  • Avoid smoke. It irritates an already sore throat and intensifies a cough.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a humidifier—An electric device that puts moisture into the air.

Facts About the Flu

The flu is in an infection of the upper respiratory tract that can effect other parts of the body. It is caused by the influenza virus and is spread through the air. The flu is highly contagious. When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, tiny droplets full of flu particles are expelled. Because these droplets are small, they are suspended in the air long enough for another person to inhale them.

During each flu season, one or more specific types of the influenza virus are responsible for causing the flu. Many times, people may have one of many viruses that cause flu-like symptoms, but not actually be infected with the influenza virus.

The flu and its symptoms are more severe, and in most cases more numerous, than those of the common cold. The flu can lead to acute bronchitis or pneumonia. In addition, it can be life-threatening for the elderly, people with lung disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Preventing the Flu

A flu shot can lower your chance of getting the flu. You should get vaccinated during the fall and winter months, before the seasonal flu hits your area.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get vaccinated against the flu each year. Anyone who wants to reduce their risk of the flu should consider the vaccine.

Hand washing can also help prevent the flu, or any flu-like illness. Even if someone in your home has the flu, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your hands. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizers are also effective.

Treating the Flu

Most importantly, when you have the flu, you need rest. And until your symptoms are gone, it is a good idea to not go back to your full activity level. You also need plenty of fluids.

For most healthy people who come down with the flu, treatment with antiviral medications are not necessary. They may be recommended for people who have chronic health conditions, are severely ill, or have suppressed immune systems. Antiviral medications may help relieve symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. They must be taken within 72 hours of the first symptoms. Some kinds of seasonal influenza viruses are resistant to antiviral medications.

Antiviral medications include:

Oseltamivir, and perhaps zanamivir, may increase the risk of self-injury and confusion shortly after taking, especially in children. Children should be closely monitored for signs of unusual behavior.

To relieve the aches and fever associated with the flu, you can try acetaminophen, found in over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol. For congestion, stuffy nose, and cough, you might want to try a combination of decongestant and antihistamine.

When to Call the Doctor

You usually do not need to call a doctor if you have signs of the flu or a cold. However, you should contact your doctor if you are at high risk for complications or if you experience any of the following difficulties:

  • Your symptoms get worse
  • You are unable to stay hydrated
  • Your symptoms longer than 2 weeks
  • After you feel better, you develop signs of a more serious problem. These include:
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • High fever
    • Shaking chills
    • Chest pain
    • Coughing with a thick mucus
  • Shortness of breath
  • New or worsening lightheadedness
  • Bluish coloring of the lips
  • Chest pain or pressure when breathing

Because the influenza medications listed above may be able to reduce the symptoms of influenza and prevent hospitalization and death among high-risk persons (for example, those above age 65, young children, and persons with chronic illnesses requiring frequent medical attention), you and your doctor may choose to develop a flu plan if you fall into a high-risk category. By following such a plan you may be able to start taking an anti-flu medication quickly in the unlikely event your yearly flu vaccine does not protect you against the symptoms of influenza.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Public Health Agency of Canada


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Cold versus flu. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated August 11, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.
Influenza in adults. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated September 27, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.
Upper respiratory infection (URI) in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated April 10, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2017.
Use caution when giving cough and cold products to kids. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated November 4, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2017.
11/9/2009 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Cowling BJ, Chan KH, Fang VJ, et al. Facemasks and hand hygiene to prevent influenza transmission in households: Acluster randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2009;151(7):437-446.
Last reviewed April 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 4/18/2017

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