Cold or Flu: How to Tell the Difference

Health, Home & Family
on November 18, 2001

As if winter weren’t hard enough in some places, it’s also flu season from November through March. We can’t do much about that, but we can do a lot to avoid getting sick—or to minimize the misery if we do end up in bed.

The first safety measure is to know the difference between a cold and the flu, because while colds are merely annoying, the flu can lead to more serious problems.

Cold symptoms commonly include a stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, and sneezing. Flu symptoms include major aches and pains, fatigue, fever, coughing, and headache, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says. Both are caused by viruses and, therefore, won’t respond to antibiotics.

Colds and flu are more prevalent in winter when we spend more time indoors in close proximity to each other. To avoid either one, and help others do the same, the FDA recommends that you:

  • Wash your hands often. The germs can be spread by shaking hands or touching doorknobs, money, or other items handled by those who are sick.
  • Avoid people with cold or flu symptoms, and if you have them, try to avoid those who don’t.
  • If you cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue. Expect others to do the same.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth without having washed your hands. Germs enter your body readily by these paths.

In addition, a flu shot can greatly reduce your chances of getting the germ, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The vaccine does not cause influenza and is 70 percent to 90 percent effective in young adults, the CDC says. It is less effective for the elderly and those with chronic health conditions but still helps prevent the roughly 20,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations caused by influenza in the United States every year.

Supplies of the vaccine are expected to be plentiful through November and December. It takes one to two weeks for a person to develop protective antibodies after inoculation, and the most common side effect is arm soreness and swelling at the injection site, the CDC reports.

Talk to your doctor before you get the shot, however, if you have certain allergies (especially to eggs), have an illness such as pneumonia, have a high fever, or are pregnant, the FDA cautions.

While a routine cold or flu may not require a trip to the doctor, do seek medical attention if (1) the symptoms get worse, (2) symptoms last a long time, or (3) if after feeling a little better, you develop signs of a more serious condition—such as nausea, vomiting, shaking chills, chest pain, or coughing with thick mucus, the FDA says.

Keep in mind that those who watch their diet and exercise are less apt to get sick or suffer severe symptoms when they do.