The average person gets sick two to four times per year. For children, this can even be as high as ten times per year! Most of these cases are the common cold, which is treated with rest, fluids and some over-the-counter medication. But some of these occurrences are more serious, like the flu (influenza), which left untreated, can manifest into severe sickness, hospitalization, and even death.
Although influenza rates have dropped slightly in recent years, the flu still causes about 3,500 deaths and 18,000 hospitalizations each year!
But how can you tell when you have the flu vs. a common cold?
Whether you’re curious, looking to prevent the flu, or wanting to do a symptom check, here are the common signs of both the flu and the common cold, so you can tell the difference and get yourself to a doctor as soon as possible, if necessary.
What Are the Symptoms of a Common Cold?
A cold typically begins with a sore throat. This can last a few days but doesn’t persist. The sore throat is usually followed by nasal symptoms, anything from congestion to a runny nose. The congestion usually grows into a cough on days four to five.
Sometimes you’ll run a fever with a cold, too, although this happens more often with children than adults.
A dead giveaway for a cold is the mucus and nasal congestion. You will either have a nose that’s constantly running with watery liquid, or you’ll have a thicker mucus that makes your nose feel ‘stuffy.’ Both of these are normal for a cold, but if this persists longer than two weeks, you may have something more serious.
How Long Does a Cold Last?
The common cold has a duration of about a week. During the first few days will be when your symptoms are new and the most contagious; it’s best to stay home and rest. If your symptoms are persisting longer than a week, or the mucus is getting thicker or darker in colour, it may be a sign of a bacterial or sinus infection.
These more serious infections need to be treated with antibiotics.
What Are Typical Flu Symptoms?
Although cold and flu symptoms are relatively similar, it can be easy to tell the difference if you’re paying attention to the severity of the symptoms and how quickly they attack.
With the flu, the symptoms are more severe and come on quicker. You’ll have a sore throat, congestion, muscle/body aches, fever, and cough right away. Most symptoms will start to improve over the course of a week, but oftentimes, you’ll feel exhausted and sick for a week or even longer.
It’s good to be aware of your symptoms during your sickness because it can be easy to contract other illnesses, especially if you have heart or lung problems. Sometimes the flu can turn into pneumonia, which is especially a risk for the elderly.
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath or other breathing complications, be sure to see your doctor right away.
Cold vs. Flu: How Can You Tell the Difference?
One of the biggest giveaways of the flu is a fever. If you run a fever with a cold, it’ll typically be low grade and mild. With the flu, it will be higher, often over 38.3 degrees Celcius (especially in children) and can last about three to four days.
With the flu, you’ll often get headaches (which you don’t always see with a simple cold). Your body aches will be more severe, and overall exhaustion can last as long as three weeks! Chest discomfort and a cough can also be a sign of the flu. The cough with the flu will often be ‘hacking’ and lingering, getting more severe with time.
Timing can also be a giveaway. The traditional ‘flu’ season runs from fall to spring, so if you’re experiencing some severe symptoms within that timeframe, October to May, you might want to give your doctor a call.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Complications of both a cold and the flu include pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat, and sinus/ear infections. If a cold/flu worsens and is left untreated, it’s easy to contract one of these other illnesses and feel much worse.
You should see a doctor if you have persistent fever (greater than 38.3 degrees Celcius for more than three to four days) or if you’re having painful swallowing, a persistent cough, or congestion coupled with headaches that last over one week.
If you’re someone who suffers from chronic health problems like asthma, heart disease, obesity, or if you’re pregnant, elderly, or are young (under 5 but especially infants), your complications and risk may be much higher, so you should see a doctor sooner.
How to Take Care of Your Body When You Have the Flu
If you think you have the flu, it’s best to see a doctor. You will be prescribed medication, often antibiotics, that will help to fight infections. You’ll want to rest and drink plenty of fluids when you have the flu.
Because influenza is very contagious in the first 24 to 48 hours, it’s best to stay home for at least 24 hours or until your fever is gone.
Preventative Care for the Flu
If you haven’t already, you should consider the flu vaccination to prevent yourself and your loved ones from contracting the flu. You can often get the vaccination at your doctor’s office.
Vaccinations are preventive care. Be sure to get the vaccination before you contract any flu-like symptoms.
If you’re looking to get the vaccination or to talk to a doctor about your symptoms, click here to find a practice near you.