Is It a Cold or the Flu? How to Tell the Difference

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A stuffy nose. A fever. General exhaustion and feelings of malaise. These symptoms are no fun, but it's hard to make it through the year without experiencing them at least once. There are many ways to tolerate and mitigate these symptoms (though some work better than others). But there's no way to get rid of them entirely. When it comes to both the common cold and the flu, you simply have to wait it out. But what exactly are the differences between the two?

The one thing you can do is prevent a cold before it happens. You can also prevent the flu. Your number one line of defense against both of these illnesses is to wash your hands. It can also be helpful to take care of your immune system. You might consider making lifestyle changes to support immunity or eating immune-boosting foods.

Both the common cold and the flu are contagious; you get sick when you come into contact with a virus your body then has to fight off. Some places you frequent are more susceptible to spreading these viruses than others. So you might want to be especially careful to disinfect your hands and avoid touching your nose and mouth when you spend time there.

But it's impossible to guarantee safety from these common viruses, so if you come down with one, how can you determine which one you have? Here is how to tell whether you have a cold or the flu.

What is the common cold?

"The common cold is an upper respiratory viral infection caused by an adenovirus, rhinovirus, or coronavirus," explains Dr. Niket Sonpal, a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist in New York City. "More than 100 different viruses can cause the common cold, meaning there's a lot of variability." Partly for this reason, there is no universal cure for a cold, nor is there a surefire way to prevent it. Luckily, however, the common cold is usually not very severe.

Symptoms of a cold

Cold symptoms can vary, but often include symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, sneezing, coughing, headaches or body aches, and a feeling of mild tiredness. A person may also experience a small fever and chills.

Cold season

You can get a common cold any time of year; since there are so many types of viruses that can cause one, it's hard to narrow down the months when you're most at risk. However, certain weather conditions can increase your chances of getting sick. "Cold-causing viruses thrive in low humidity, which is why they're so common during winter months," explains Sonpal.

How might you catch it?

"These airborne viruses typically spread when someone sick sneezes or coughs," Sonpal says. "You can also get infected if you come in contact with a surface that a sick person also contacted and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes."

What is the flu?

Influenza, commonly known as "the flu," is a contagious illness caused by influenza viruses. "People sometimes say the 'the flu is a really bad cold,' but that is simply not the case," says Dr. Samuel Malloy, medical director at the U.K. medical site Dr Felix. "The flu is a different disease that can even be life-threatening for some people." In fact, in the 2017 to 2018 flu season, approximately 80,000 people died from the virus.

Symptoms of the flu

Flu symptoms vary from person to person, but they can include a hacking cough, moderate to high fever, sore throat, shaking chills, severe muscle or body aches, headaches, stuffy and runny nose, nausea and vomiting, and severe fatigue that may last up to two weeks. According to Molloy, people with the flu often experience these symptoms to a severe degree. "The flu generally forces people to stay in bed all day," he explains.

Flu season

Unlike the common cold, the flu has a season. Flu season typically runs from November through March, although Sonpal notes that you can still get it in October or as late as May. "You can catch the flu at other times of the year," he says. "But symptoms outside of flu season are more likely to be from a cold or an allergy." At the start of flu season, it's recommended that you get a flu shot to protect yourself. Here are 15 things you need to know before you get yours.

How to tell the difference

You might have noticed that a lot of those symptoms are the same. Both can come with a stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, body aches, headaches, and even a fever. When you feel sickness coming on, there are a few ways you can tell the difference.

How fast you get sick

"A cold typically appears gradually - you might notice one or two symptoms creeping in over a few days," says pharmacist Scott McDougall, director and registered manager of The Independent Pharmacy. "On the other hand, when flu hits, it hits hard and fast. You will feel most (if not all) of the symptoms within a matter of hours."

Your symptoms

Cold symptoms can affect your entire body, but according to McDougall, they are typically focused in the nose and throat. Additionally, the symptoms, he says, are not debilitating - though they are certainly unpleasant. "With the flu, on the other hand, symptoms aren't confined to the nose and throat and will affect most of your body," McDougall says. "The flu is also severe enough to prevent you from carrying out your usual day-to-day due to the significant discomfort caused by the symptoms. Sufferers may find themselves unable to go to work or leave the house."

Certain symptoms that sound the same will actually feel very different, depending on which illness you experience. "The flu often presents a dry, hacking cough, while a cough from a cold is wetter," says McDougall. "And while both present a raised temperature, a flu sufferer will have a much higher temperature, typically 100 degrees Fahrenheit and above."

How to treat a cold

The best way to treat the common cold? According to Sonpal, you should prioritize resting and taking care of yourself by drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious foods. (These immune-boosting foods are a good place to start.) However, Sonpal says, "You can treat the symptoms of a cold to help you feel better, but this will not make you recover sooner." There is no cure for the common cold. Other helpful tips could be to take over-the-counter cold medicine or cough drops to treat symptoms (but don't overdo it on the cough drops). You could also gargle salt water, which may help ease a sore throat and nasal congestion. Avoid these foods when you have a runny nose, though - they could make it worse.

How to treat the flu

You can't cure the flu - you just have to wait it out. But the best way to take care of yourself when you're down with the flu is to rest at home, get plenty of fluids, and monitor your symptoms closely. If your fever or symptoms get more severe or you are 65 years or older, pregnant, or have a long-term medical condition, you should see a doctor. Sonpal says that an unusually severe headache is also a sign you should seek medical attention. Sipping on soothing beverages can help mitigate your flu symptoms, as well. These beverages are your best choices to drink when you're sick.

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