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How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

By Edited May 1, 2016 0 1

As school starts up in the fall, various viruses start to be traded from family to family. Sooner or later you're going to catch one. The common cold is one of the top 5 diagnosed illnesses in the United States. You can expect to get to catch one to four colds per year. These are usually not serious and go away on their own. Influenza or the flu on the other hand can be more serious and kills as many as 20,000 Americans a year. Swine flu or H1N1 is a new variant of the flu and seems to more contagious and has killed many as well. Luckily, there are vaccines for both 'regular' influenza and swine flu which can significantly reduce your chances of coming down with it. If you are unlucky enough to catch it, your doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza which can reduce the length and severity of the either flu type. Since there are major differences between the cold and flu, it's important to be able to tell the difference between them so you know what action to take.

Things You Will Need


Step 1

Think about how your illness started. Did this come about suddenly or did this develop slowly over a few days. Both flu types usually hit suddenly and without warning. A cold usually starts out as a running nose and progresses over a day or two.

Step 2

Check your temperature. Colds rarely cause a fever. If you do get one, it would be mild (<101° F). Influenza can cause high fevers (>101° F). You can treat these with Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Mortin/Advil (ibuprofen). If you cannot control your fever with these medications, see a doctor immediately (especially for high fevers >102° F).

Step 3

The other defining feature of Influenza is the aches and fatigue that go with it. People usually get aches all over. Their energy level drops and severe fatigue sets in which can last a few weeks. These are not found in the common cold. These symptoms will show up the first day for people who get the flu.

Step 4

Do you feel like you're going to vomit? Have you had diarrhea? These are common symptoms from a Swine flu (H1N1) infection. If you get these gastrointestinal symptoms along with the other influenza symptoms, you probably have Swine flu instead of 'regular' flu.
These are the common defining features of these different illnesses. All three infections usually include sneezing, cough, head and chest congestion, sore throat, and headache. If you have any of these illness, stay away from others and get some rest. For most people, they can recover on their own. However, if you have a chronic health condition (such as asthma, heart failure, COPD, AIDS, organ transplant), you should see your physician as soon as possible. The same goes if the symptoms are usually bad (such as high fever, not being able to move, or problems breathing). Otherwise healthy people have died from influenza, so it's important to seek help if you're not sure. Better to be safe than sorry.

Tips & Warnings

Practicing good hygiene (washing hands, avoiding sick people, etc.) can help prevent catching an illness. If you get sick, stay home to avoid spreading it to others.


Sep 28, 2010 9:33pm
What an excellently written article that hits on all of the important points of the subject matter! Well done.
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