Is it the flu or a cold? How to tell the difference

According to this week's influenza report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity continues to increase.

A total 24 states, including Georgia, have reported widespread geographic flu activity this season.

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“An annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against influenza and its potentially serious complications,” according to CDC experts.

Last year, a flu outbreak swept the United States and killed nearly 80,000 Americans, including 180 children, 80 percent of whom were not vaccinated against the deadly strain.

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But how do you distinguish the flu from the cold?

According to the CDC, the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses and may display similar symptoms. But they’re caused by different viruses.

The cold can be caused by a variety of respiratory viruses, but rhinoviruses are the most common. There are four types of influenza viruses: A, B, C and D, but there are multiple subtypes as well. Human influenza A and B viruses cause those seasonal epidemics nearly every winter; type C illnesses don't typically cause epidemics and influenza D primarily affects cattle.

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Some differences in symptoms

Unlike the milder cold, the flu can be quite dangerous if left untreated.

“It can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone,” the agency warns. “Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.”

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You probably have the flu if...

  • Symptoms appear abruptly
  • You have a fever
  • You have body aches
  • You're experiencing chills
  • You're fatigued and weak
  • You have chest discomfort and a cough
  • You have a headache

Note that you may experience sneezing, stuffed nose and sore throat while you have the flu, but it’s more common in cold patients. It’s also possible for influenza patients (usually children) to experience vomiting and diarrhea.

You may only have a cold if...

  • Symptoms appear gradually
  • You don't have a fever
  • You have only slight body aches
  • You're not experiencing chills
  • You only have mild chest discomfort or a mild cough
  • You don't have a headache
  • You're sneezing, coughing and have a sore throat

You may feel fatigued or weak if you have a common cold, but it’s highly typical in flu patients.

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Treatment for cold vs flu


If you have flu symptoms, experts encourage folks to stay home and avoid contact with others with the exception of getting medical care.

Typically, the flu can last one to two weeks and severe symptoms tend to disappear in two to three days.

Health professionals may treat your illness with prescribed antiviral medication to make the flu milder and shorten sick time, as well as prevent serious complications, such as pneumonia. These drugs are typically given within two days of symptoms to those who are already very sick with the flu or have a heightened risk of complications with the flu. Not everyone will receive antiviral drugs. Fever-reducing medications may be given to help eliminate fever.

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While sick with the contagious flu, it's important to take precautions to protect others by limiting contact, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands often with soap and water and keep surfaces and objects clean. Also: stay home until you're feeling better. The CDC recommends staying in for at least 24 hours until your fever subsides with the exception of medical care.

Remember: A yearly flu vaccination is “the first and best way to prevent the flu,” according to the CDC.

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There is no cure for the common cold. Recovery usually takes 7-10 days, though individuals with weakened immune systems are at heightened risk for serious illnesses, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

To help you feel better, CDC experts recommend getting lots of rest and drinking fluids. Before using over-the-counter medications to ease symptoms for yourself or your children, be sure to talk to your doctor.

See a doctor if symptoms last more than 10 days, if symptoms feel severe, or if your child (younger than 30 months) has a fever or is unusually lethargic.