Cold or the Flu? How to Know

Published October 30, 2018

Jennifer Liu, MD

By Jennifer Liu, MD, Family Practitioner

It’s that time of the year again when the cold and flu viruses become rampant. When you’re feeling miserable, sometimes it’s difficult to know what you have and when it’s time to go to the doctor. 

One of the biggest differences is that the cold has milder symptoms and typically lasts about five days, with symptoms typically waning over next three to five days.

The common cold is associated primarily with congestion, runny nose, sore throat, cough and fatigue early on. Consider seeing a doctor if your cold is accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, vomiting or a sore throat that lasts longer than a week or hurts intensely and involves difficulty swallowing or breathing. Also see your doctor if your cold gets worse after several days or seems to get better and then worse again. You may have a sinus infection, which can begin with symptoms similar to a cold or allergies.

The flu, on the other hand, is usually accompanied by more severe symptoms and comes on more quickly. Many people will have a fever of 101 degrees or more. You may also develop chills, sore throat, cough and body aches. If your symptoms are severe and include nausea and vomiting, you cannot keep down liquids, or the fever continues beyond five days, you may want to consider seeing your doctor.

A common complication of the flu is pneumonia, particularly in the young and elderly and those with heart or lung problems. These people should take extra precautions if they should get sick.

If you develop symptoms of the flu, wait 24 hours after you are fever-free before you return to work or school.

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