Cold vs. Flu — What’s the Difference?

You wake up. The pain in your head is almost as loud as the alarm. Your muscles ache and you feel hot. The thought of getting out of bed is daunting. Yep, chances are you’re coming down with something. But is it a cold or the flu? And what’s the difference?

According to Christopher Rivera, MD, at Memorial Physician Services’ Family Medical Center of Lincoln, the onset, intensity and severity of the illness help distinguish between cold and flu.

With flu, you are usually hit with a high fever first. Other symptoms include chills, loss of appetite, coughing and muscle aches. Colds are much slower to develop. Symptoms usually start with a scratchy throat and a mild fever. You can also expect sneezing, nasal stuffiness and a runny nose.

“Cold symptoms usually peak around day three or four and typically clear up after seven days,” Dr. Rivera said. “It can take up to 10 days to feel back to normal after the flu.”

The only way to treat the cold virus is plenty of rest and fluids. But you can help relieve symptoms by taking over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants and cough suppressants.

Like a cold, the best way to treat the flu virus is plenty of rest and fluids. Medications are available, but they’re only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of experiencing symptoms.

“These anti-viral drugs can only be expected to reduce the duration of illness by a day or two and possibly decrease the intensity of symptoms experienced,” Dr. Rivera said. “Over-the-counter drugs can also be used for symptomatic relief.”

Children younger than 5, pregnant women, seniors and those with serious medical conditions are all at high risk for developing complications from the flu. More than 110,000 hospital admissions are related to the flu each year. The best way to protect yourself and your family is to get a flu shot.

“When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community,” Dr. Rivera said. “A person getting the injection cannot get the flu illness from the immunization.”

Proper hand washing can also prevent the spread of cold and flu germs. Some viruses and bacteria can live several hours on hard surfaces like doorknobs, computer keyboards and telephones. Wash your hands often to prevent passing or picking up germs.

Most colds and flu don’t require medical care, but call your doctor if you experience shortness of breath, confusion or if your symptoms don’t clear up after 10 days.