Flu or Cold: What Is Wrong With Me?

Written by - Reviewed by Consumer Health Digest Team

Published: Feb 4, 2015 | Last Updated: Mar 27, 2019

Flu or Cold

So, you’re coughing like some seal begging for fish at the aquarium and have a nose that resembles your apartment’s leaky faucet. You’re sick, but what fresh doom is infecting you; a cold or the flu? This article will hopefully clear up the matter for you so that you can fix it. Post haste.

What is the Common Cold?

The common cold is a term used to describe a group of symptoms that infect the upper respiratory system. These symptoms come about from being infected with a virus. The cold can be instigated from over 200 different types of viruses[1], the most common one being the rhinovirus, which causes 30-35 % of colds. Other cold causing viruses include the coronavirus, which causes around 20 % of colds and the respiratory syncytial virus, which is the source of 10 % of colds.

The cold is a very common ailment that affects millions of people each year. In America alone, there are 62 million occurrences of the common cold annually, with 20 million missed days of work per year and around 22 million missed days of school all because of this illness. Though it is a mild illness, it is also unfortunately one that can occur with frequency.

Symptoms of a Common Cold

What are the Symptoms of a Common Cold?

The symptoms of a common cold include:

  • A mild fever
  • A cough
  • Sneezing
  • Congested nose
  • A running nose. The discharge can be yellow-green in color as the cold progress
  • A sore and itchy throat
  • A mild headache
  • Fatigue
  • Occasionally an individual may experience aches and pains in their muscles

Normally most symptoms will disappear after 7-10 days; however, a cough may persist for up to 3-4 weeks.

What is The Flu?

Influenza, or as it is more colloquially known as ‘the flu’, is an illness caused by the virus vector influenza. This ailment is a lot more serious than the common cold, with severe symptoms and a higher risk of leading to undesirable complications. The people most at risk of becoming infected with this virus are children under the age of two, elderly persons over the age of 65, pregnant women, and individuals with weakened immune systems[2].

What are the Symptoms of the Flu?

What are the Symptoms of the Flu

The symptoms of the flu are quite similar to the cold, but are more severe in intensity and can last for a prolonged period of time. The symptoms include:

  • A high fever
  • Cough
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • A general feeling of un-wellness (malaise)
  • Sneezing
  • Dizziness
  • Chills
  • In rare cases, a person may experience vomiting and diarrhea.

Most of the symptoms of the flu will disappear after 4-7 days. Though the cough and fatigue can last for weeks.

Is it the flu or a cold?

Though these two illnesses do have quite similar symptoms, there are some discrepancies. Below a table has been provided that highlight these differences.

SymptomsCommon ColdThe Flu
FeverNot always. If yes, it will be mild. Yes. The onset of the flu is normally first recognized by a high fever. This fever is normally around 104 F.
HeadacheIf a headache does occur, it will be mild. The Flu
Aches and PainsIn rare instances, the muscles can be quite achy and painful. Pains to the muscles and joints is quite common.
VomitingNo, vomiting does not occur with a common cold. In rare cases, vomiting can occur.
Nose issuesA congested and runny nose. Sneezing will also occur. The discharge from the nose can be yellow-green in color. Nose discharge and sneezing can occur.
Throat and respiratory issuesA sore and itchy throat. A cough can be present.A sore red throat. A dry hacking cough.

The overall difference between a cold and flu is that a cold is normally restricted to the nose and the throat while the flu can be felt all over the body, with aches, a cough and a general illness feeling.

Flu and Cold Complications

Complications are an issue with the flu rather than the common cold. The flu can develop into various serious respiratory problems. These include pneumonia and bronchitis, as well as the chance of developing a sinus or ear infection. People at higher risk of developing these flu complications include individuals over the age of 65 and young children.

Tests and Diagnosis for a Cold and the Flu

To diagnose the flu, a medical profession will normally check the patient’s temperature as well as the throat for redness and listen to the lungs. Also, if a patient arrives with flu-like symptoms, a “rapid influenza diagnostic test” may be carried out.

This test in less than 30 minutes will detect whether or not the patient has the flu. In regards to the common cold, the symptoms are usually enough to indicate whether or not a person is suffering from this illness.

Treatment for the Flu and the Common Cold

There is no cure for a cold, so the only thing a person can do is try to relieve the symptoms. To relieve inflammation of the nose, nasal sprays can be used. Though they should not be used too often, nor should be used on children. Over the counter medication can be used to relieve some cold symptoms, and cough syrups may be ingested to relieve a sore throat and cough.

Painkillers, such as Tylenol can be used to aid in soothing aches and reducing fever. The some treatments can also be used to aid in easing flu symptoms. However, unlike with the cold, the flu also has the option of taking antiviral medication as prescribed by your health professional. This medication should be taken within the first 48 hours of diagnosis.

Related Video – Common Cold and Flu Treatments (Cold and Flu #1)

How to Care for Yourself at Home?

There are several things you can do at home to aid in soothing some of the discomfort caused by the flu or cold. These include the following;

  • Rest. Lots and lots of rest are really the best medicine for a cold or flu.
  • Gargle with salt water to soothe a sore throat. Put one and a half teaspoons of salt in a glass of warm water. Stir. Gargle the solution for a couple of seconds, and then spit it out. You could also drink lemon and honey tea to help with your sore throat. To make this drink, mix 1 and a half tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 and a half teaspoons of honey into a cup of warm water. Stir and then enjoy.
  • Keep warm by having a blanket placed around you or by staying snug in bed.
  • Make sure you drink plenty of fluids to keep hydrated. Stick to water or a sports drink that is high in electrolytes. At the same time, avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can quickly dehydrate your body.
  • Essential oils such as tea tree oil, peppermint, and eucalyptus can help decongest your sinuses. There are a few ways of introducing this oil to your body. First, you could add a few drops to your bath and soak in the warm water for 30 minutes. Second, you could dab a few drops onto your pj’s and then go to bed. Finally, you could add a few drops of essential oils to a bowl of warm water and then soak a flannel in the mixture. Place this flannel over you face until it cools.
  • Take a warm bath or shower. This will also aid in clearing your sinuses.
  • Do not over-exert yourself. Just relax in bed or front of the tally until you feel not so miserable.
Flu or Cold

Can You Prevent the Flu or a Cold?

The easiest way to attempt to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine. This is an annual shot that can lower your chances of getting the flu. Other ways to prevent catching the flu or a cold largely involve your hygiene habits and lifestyle. The most important thing that you can do to prevent the catching of this illness is to wash your hands properly when needed.

This does not mean an ultra-quick little rinse under cold water and a flick of the hands afterwards. No, you need to wash completely your hands, including fingernails, with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. This may seem a bit over the top, but if twenty seconds of hand washing can prevent 3 days of gross sneezing and a throat that feels like you have swallowed a cactus whole, then it is most likely worth it. Other things that can prevent the catching of a cold or flu include a healthy diet and exercise. Lots of fruits and lots of soul-crushing, ahem, I mean fun activity, like running and sweaty other things.

Also, try not touching gross things. What this means is, do not overly touch public transport interiors (so try and refrain from licking a subway pole or caressing a bus seat) or colleagues workspaces (put down the Harry Potter figurines, even if they are really cool) or your child’s preschool classroom equipment. And if you do, use hand sanitizer afterward. Because germs are EVERYWHERE.

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