Flu or Just a Cold? Expert Tips to Diagnose Your Symptoms

Not knowing the symptoms of a cold and flu can make you mistake one disease for another, leading to incorrect treatments and complications that can cause serious health problems. While these two diseases have some common ground, they also have several different symptoms that can help you identify them.

Is it a cold or the flu?

Sick woman in bed

The cold is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract that can be caused by more than 200 viruses, with rhinoviruses being the most common ones. The nose is affected the most often, but there can be other affected areas, such as the throat (pharyngitis), the eyes (conjunctivitis), and the sinuses (sinusitis). The cold usually resolves in 7-10 days with few exceptions that can last up to 3 weeks.

Influenza is an infectious disease caused by the influenza viruses, which are RNA viruses of the family Orthomyxoviridae. It is contagious, just like the common cold, but its symptoms are usually more severe. Nonetheless, uninformed individuals can mistake the flu with a severe cold. Influenza’s symptoms usually disappear within a week except for the cough and the feeling of tiredness which can last for weeks.

Recognizing the key signs of a cold or the flu

The first difference between these two diseases is that the flu has a sudden start compared to a cold. The symptoms usually appear 1 or 2 days after infection and include high fever – 38-40°C (100-104°F) , extreme exhaustion, muscle aches and pains, prominent headaches, and dry cough. The symptoms of a cold appear gradually and aggravate over a period of 1 to 3 days. The first signs of a cold are usually a scratchy feeling in the throat, tiredness and/or sneezing.

Adults with a cold rarely have a fever and when it appears, it is low. A stuffy nose and a sore throat are also common symptoms of the cold, and the cough, if present, is milder than in the case of influenza.

flu vaccination

A great way to tell if you have the flu or a cold is to remember that fever, headaches, muscle aches and pains, exhaustion, and chest discomfort are usual flu symptoms but not so often associated with the cold. Also, all of these symptoms are much more severe in the case of influenza. Children under 5 years with the flu can experience vomiting and/or diarrhea.

You mustn’t ignore either of the above-mentioned symptoms and use symptomatic treatment for your disease. People with chronic medical conditions, low immunity, and children should consult a doctor, as influenza can lead to more serious complications such as respiratory failure and even death. The best way to prevent the flu is to take an annual influenza vaccination, which is highly recommended for the elderly, children, healthcare workers, and people with chronic diseases.

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