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Home Health Cold, Flu & Allergies Common Cold vs the Flu

Common Cold vs the Flu

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common-cold-vs-the-fluYour Cold Could Be the Flu. Learn the Difference and Get Better Faster!

Flu season is upon us, and it's likely that you or someone in your family is going to get sick if they aren't already! But is the congestion and body aches the result of influenza or just a nasty cold? Our handy primer will help you tell the difference between the potentially dangerous flu and a common cold.

What is the Flu?

Part of the confusion that surrounds influenza stems from the fact that people use the term "flu" to describe several different illnesses that range from stomach viruses to sinus infections. The "stomach flu," is not an actual medical diagnosis. Instead, it's a common name used for gastroenteritis. Likewise, some people refer to a severe cold as the flu when it is actually a rhinovirus or similar respiratory infection.

True influenza is a specific virus (with three variations known as influenza A, B, and C) and is the only virus that can cause an honest case of the flu. On the other hand, the common cold can be caused by over a thousand different viruses. Unfortunately, many cold viruses can have symptoms quite similar to those seen in influenza. Knowing if you have influenza can be important because the flu can lead to more serious problems like pneumonia.

The Difference Between Colds and Flu

It can be difficult to distinguish between a common cold vs. the flu, especially if you've never had the flu before. If you still aren't sure after reading this article, you may want to call your doctor who can conduct a test to determine if you have influenza.

Common Cold Symptoms

The common cold can be cause by a wide variety of viruses, so it's rare to have two colds that present in exactly the same way. That being said, most colds do have some common features.

  • A cold usually begins with a sore throat that goes away after 1 to 2 days.
  • Most colds begin gradually and get worse over the course of 7 to 10 days.
  • After a sore throat, most colds cause a runny nose or congestion.
  • About five days after the first symptoms, many colds result in a cough.
  • Fevers are rare in adults with common colds and usually remain low grade (under 102° F).
  • If cold symptoms last beyond ten days, you may have developed a secondary bacterial infection and should see a doctor.

Flu Symptoms

Those who have had the flu often say that they would never mistake it for a cold. Influenza is a serious viral infection that often strikes without warning leaving victims feeling as if they were hit by a ton of bricks. The following are signs of the flu.

  • The flu is almost always accompanied by a fever, often reaching temperatures of 102° F or more.
  • The flu comes on quite suddenly over a period of 24 to 48 hours and initially manifests as sever body aches, headache, congestion, and cough.
  • The flu causes extreme exhaustion, especially in the early stages. Many people feel as if they can't get out of bed.
  • The flu often causes moderate to severe chest pain.
  • Coughing, sneezing, and congestion may come with flu but are usually less pronounced than in a cold.

If you suspect that you or a member of your family has the flu, you should contact a doctor immediately. There are anti-viral medications that can dramatically reduce the symptoms and length of the influenza infection, but they are only affective if given within the first day or two of infection. Most healthy adults recover from the flu within 1 to 2 weeks. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to the flu and should be watched carefully throughout the duration of the illness.

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