Cold or Flu: How can you tell the difference?

By Ileana Varela

The flu and the common cold are similar in many ways, but they are caused by different viruses, and it is important that you can tell the difference and know when to seek medical attention.

“Contrary to what many people think, influenza (flu) is not just a little worse than the common cold. It can kill you,” says Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and director of the FIU Health Travel Medicine and Vaccine Clinic.

Because colds and flu have overlapping symptoms it can be difficult to tell them apart based on symptoms alone. This infographic shows how subtle some of these differences can be.

People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Cold symptoms tend to be milder than flu symptoms and generally don’t result in serious health problems.

Flu symptoms typically include a fever, sometimes a high fever, or if not a full fever, feeling feverish/chills. Respiratory symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose. Headaches are common, as are muscle or body aches and fatigue (tiredness). Although most people who get sick from the flu recover without treatment, unlike cold-viruses, influenza can cause severe disease and complications, including hospitalization and death.

These are Dr. Marty’s suggestions if you come down with flu symptoms:
• Stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
• Wear a facemask or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and wash your hands often to keep from spreading the flu to others.
• Stay hydrated. Mom’s chicken soup can be a big help here.
• Make sure your home is clean. Wipe commonly handled objects (e.g. TV remote) and items (e.g. light stiches) with alcohol wipes.
• Change your bedsheets, or at least change the pillow case every day or every other day. Try to sleep away from other members of your household.
• Don’t share toothbrushes and keep your toothbrush away from that of others in your home.

However, if you’re in a high-risk group for complications: young children, people 65 or older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions (including lung and heart disease, diabetes, and immunosuppression), or are very sick or worried about your illness, you should not hesitate in contacting your medical provider.

According to the CDC, these are “the emergency warning signs” in someone suffering from the flu.

In children
• Fast breathing or trouble breathing
• Bluish skin color
• Not drinking enough fluids
• Not waking up or not interacting
• Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
• Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
• Fever with a rash

In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:
• Being unable to eat
• Has trouble breathing
• Has no tears when crying
• Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

In adults
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
• Sudden dizziness
• Confusion
• Severe or persistent vomiting
• Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

The flu season is far from over in Florida—it typically runs thru May. Health officials warn that the worst is yet to come. Dr. Marty says the best way to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated.