How to Tell the Difference Between Cold and Flu

Picture it: You wake up with that familiar cough or respiratory pain and just know you’re going to have to stay home from work. As you hobble over to the medicine cabinet, a feeling of dread sets in. It’s probably just a cold—but what if it’s the flu? Before you rush over to the local urgent care clinic, you might be able to determine what you have just by taking a quick inventory of your symptoms.

Influenza and the common cold are both illnesses of the respiratory system, though they originate from completely different viruses. To confuse matters even more, there are more than 100 types of cold viruses, and flu strains can vary from year to year. So as we break down the symptoms of each illness, keep in mind that certain symptoms that are common with a cold may occasionally be present with the flu and vice versa. It’s always best to see your doctor if symptoms persist.

Is It Flu Season?

One thing to consider is whether or not it’s flu season. Flu season usually lasts from November to March, give or take a month. That doesn’t mean you can’t catch a cold in December, but it does mean you’re far less likely to have the flu if you’re reading this in August.

How Long Have You Had the Illness?

Most colds clear up within a week, while painful flu symptoms can linger for up to three weeks with milder symptoms continuing even beyond that. Flu systems also tend to be more intense than cold symptoms.

How Quickly Did Symptoms Emerge?

With colds, symptoms usually progress over a few days. You might notice a scratchy throat at first, followed by a runny nose and congestion within a couple of days. Then you may notice a loss of energy. It all culminates in that grand finale where you just can’t bear to get out of bed. Flu symptoms, by contrast, tend to hit you over the course of a single day or night.

What Kind of Cough Do You Have?

A painful cough is a common symptom of both colds and cases of flu, but the nature of the cough will differ between these two types of viruses. With a cold, you can expect a congested, mucus-heavy cough. With the flu, a painful, dry cough is more common.

What the Flu Looks Like

If you have nausea, fever, chills, or sweats, it’s almost certainly the flu. With the occasional exception of fever, these symptoms just aren’t prevalent with colds. On the same note, body aches are common with the flu but extremely rare with colds.

What a Cold Looks Like

Common cold symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose accompanied by a sore throat. These symptoms may be present with the flu as well, but they’re far less common.

Could It Be Allergies?

To complicate things even more, allergies can mimic cold and flu symptoms. Congestion, runny nose, and cough are just some examples of allergy symptoms that might lead you to think you’ve caught a cold or worse. If you think allergies might be to blame, consider the season. Is it allergy season? If you suspect a possible allergy attack, take an antihistamine and see if the symptoms subside. If symptoms include itchiness or rash, this can also be an indicator of an allergy issue. If fever is present, you can probably rule out allergies.

Take Care of Yourself

Remember to see a doctor if your symptoms persist. If you’re currently at home battling a nasty case of the flu, you might find it beneficial to try out some easy home remedies while you wait to be treated by a doctor.

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