Know the Difference: Is it a Cold or the Flu?

May 4, 2016

Know the Difference: Is it a Cold or the Flu?

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Both the cold and flu make a strong appearance during the fall, winter, and even into early spring, but sometimes it is difficult to figure out which one you have. While many of the symptoms of the cold and flu are quite similar, how they appear and their magnitude make the biggest difference.

You May Have a Cold if...

The most common symptoms of the common cold include a sore throat, sneezing, coughing, nasal congestion, and a runny nose. A low-grade fever of 101 degrees or less and minimal achiness sometimes makes an appearance as well. The big thing to keep in mind is that the symptoms are typically mild and above the neck. Generally speaking, you will begin to feel the symptoms of the cold coming on and then they will begin to peak in about two or three days.

A cold will usually last about a week or up to two with the symptoms gradually decreasing as time goes on. Typically, colds are most prevalent during the dryer seasons like fall and winter, but you can get cold at any time of the year.

You get a cold by touching surfaces that have been touched, sneezed, or coughed on by someone infected with a cold and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. When you feel yourself getting a cold, it is good to stay home and rest for two or three days because colds are highly contagious, especially in the beginning. You can help prevent colds by washing your hands after coughing, sneezing, and touching public surface like hand rails.

Getting plenty of rest and consuming plenty of liquids is some of the best ways to combat a cold. Because a cold is a viral infection, antibiotics should not be used as treatment. However, there are medications available to help treat cold symptoms such as over the counter medications to treat congestion, cough, and aches as well as natural remedies such as vitamin C. 

You May Have the Flu if…

The flu is also a viral infection, but it typically has more severe symptoms than a cold and more of a chance of manifesting into something more problematic such as bronchitis or pneumonia. The flu acts differently than a common cold as well. Instead of the symptoms gradually making an appearance, in the flu, they are more aggressive and make their appearance much more quickly. You can get the flu the same way you get a cold, by touching surfaces previously touched by an infected individual and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.

The symptoms of the seasonal flu usually include a sore throat, cough, congestion, and runny nose much like a cold, but also severe muscle and/or body aches, shaking chills, and long-term fatigue. While not every person gets a fever with the flu, many do, and it is higher than with a cold: typically 101 degrees or higher. The biggest difference is that with the flu, symptoms take over your entire body and you often feel extremely tired. This feeling of fatigue can last for a few weeks. While a cold can happen at any time of the year, flu season typically lasts from mid fall to early spring, or October to March. There are variances between the years, though.

Rest and fluid consumption are essential flu treatment options, but if you are at high risk for complications to arise, visit your doctor as soon as possible to get an anti-viral medication. If taken with 48 hours of symptoms beginning, symptoms should be less intense, recovery should happen more quickly, and there is less of a chance of additional complications arising. They should not be taken unless necessary though because you can become immune to their flu-fighting capabilities. Decongestants and pain relievers can help with treating the symptoms of the flu.

Preventing Senior Colds and the Flu

Prevention for both colds and the flu is exactly the same except for one key method: the flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent getting the flu (or at least to decrease symptoms if you do get it). It is recommended for most people to get the flu shot in October so that they are protected for the forthcoming flu season. Aside from that, the best ways to prevent both the cold and flu is to have good hygiene. Wash your hands constantly, have access to hand sanitizer, and wipe down surfaces that could get exposed to the viruses. If you know that they are both spreading around, it may also be a good idea to avoid crowded places and stay away from people that you know are sick.

Living a healthy lifestyle is also important and a great measure to prevent the cold or flu. Stay active, get plenty of sleep, eat fruits and vegetables, and manage your stress. Exercise can also help with cold symptoms by relieving congestion and combating low energy. If symptoms are below the neck, limit exercise and focus on rest.

While there are many similarities between the cold and flu it is important to know the differences. The “neck check” is an easy and quick method for determining whether you have a cold or the flu. If your symptoms are mostly above your neck then it is probably a cold, but if they are present farther down you body, then it may be the flu. Keep in mind prevention is key, so try your best to prevent getting a cold or flu in the first place!

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Frequently Asked Questions

My father has had a cough for sometime now. He insists it's just a cold, but we're worried it could be more. Could it be walking pneumonia?

Yes, it is possible that it could be walking pneumonia, but it could even just be a lingering symptom of a cold like your dad said. However, it is important to know when a cough is more than just a cough because it could actually be a more serious condition like the walking pneumonia you suggested, or chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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How do I cure a cold?

Common colds are easily remedied especially in the early stages. Cold treatments can be found at any drug store and are considered over the counter medication. Decongestant sprays and cough syrups are the most common over the counter medications used to treat common colds. Pain relievers are also used for headaches associated with the illness. Often, medications are combined to treat all cold symptoms. Natural medications are also available.

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