What is the difference between cold and flu?

Discover if you have the flu or a cold by examining your symptoms

While the common cold and the influenza virus are two distinct types of illnesses, their symptoms are similar and at times very difficult to distinguish. The flu is a viral infection caused by a single respiratory virus (influenza), while a cold is caused by the adenovirus or the coronavirus and its many highly variable subsets. As such, the oft-heard expression that “there is no cure for the common cold” is completely true, while the single strain of virus that causes the flu can be prevented with a vaccine. 

In order to decide if you have a cold or the flu, it is important to know the similarities and differences between their symptoms.
Cold symptoms
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Low-grade fever
  • Fatigue
Flu symptoms
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches and pains
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
Why are they so difficult to distinguish?
The reason that the cold and the flu may be difficult to differentiate is due to the fact that your body has a limited number of ways in which to react to illness. Therefore, it reacts to both a cold and the flu by trying to fight them off using the same methods. What's more, both illnesses tend to occur during the same November-to-March cold and flu season. Using the seasons is helpful when distinguishing between cold/flu and allergies because allergies tend to occur during the spring and summer months.
How to tell them apart
There are two great ways to tell whether you have a cold or the flu. Two main ways in which they are different from each other are:
  • Length of symptoms
  • Severity of symptoms
While both illnesses generally last 7 to 10 days, milder ongoing flu symptoms can continue for several weeks afterwards.
In general, flu symptoms are much more severe than cold symptoms. A cold will give you a runny nose, congestion, a sore throat, and on occasion a low-grade fever. The flu affects your lungs and joints, leaves you weak, lethargic, and achy, may provoke vomiting and gastrointestinal distress, causes a high fever, and can in certain cases lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, and even death.
In the case of both the flu and the common cold, your best offense is a good defense. There are many preventative measures that you can take to ensure that you do not come down with either of these sicknesses:
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Do not share utensils or drinking glasses
  • Avoid contact with those who are ill
In the case of the flu, it is important to get vaccinated before flu season begins.
If you are already sick, there are various remedies which can aid in recovery.
  • Tamiflu or Relenza - antivirals which block the ability of viruses to reproduce and shorten the length and severity of the illness
Both the cold and the flu
  • Antihistamines
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Decongestants, such as Sudafed
  • Plenty of liquids
It is important to note that neither the common cold nor the flu is treatable with antibiotics, since they are both caused by viruses.
  • Tags: cold cold and flu flu
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Categories: Cold, Flu

Michelle Spatz, Amanda Maynes

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