Though colds and the flu are usually associated with the winter months, these diseases are no respecters of seasons. They can hit anyone at any time, but sometimes the symptoms are so similar that it’s difficult to know which one you have. Knowing the difference between a cold and the flu (influenza) can mean the difference between getting the correct or incorrect treatment. It could also affect how soon you get well. Here are five ways to tell if you have the flu or just a cold.
Colds are Generally “Slower” Than the Flu
A cold usually starts with a mild to moderate sore throat or cough. This disappears after a couple of days and is usually replaced by congested nasal passages, headaches, and mucus. The mucus will progress from clear and watery to thick and dark. Colds generally last 7-10 days.
On the other hand, the flu hits suddenly. As with a cold, the flu may start with a sore throat or mild cough. These symptoms often worsen with time. Flu symptoms can improve in about 2-5 days, but unlike with a cold, it’s common to feel rundown for awhile.
Fevers are a Hallmark of Flu
Most people do not experience fevers with colds. Small children may develop low-grade fevers. The flu, however, does include fevers, which can become severe. These fevers are often no higher than 102 degrees, except with young children, who usually experience higher, dangerous fevers.
Sleepiness Can be a Sign
It’s normal to feel tired with a cold or the flu. But if you’re absolutely exhausted and sleeping for long periods, it’s more likely you have the flu. Again, that fatigue can last for 2-3 weeks after you’ve been cleared of the virus, so take it easy even when you head back to work.
Check Your Cough
If you’re only coughing a little and hear a hacking sound, it’s a cold. A persistent, painful cough, accompanied by chest congestion, is the flu. Be very specific with your doctor about this symptom, as he or she will want to watch and make sure pneumonia does not develop.
Severity of Aches
Mild, non-specific achiness probably belongs to a cold. With the flu, your aches will be more severe, and you may have more pain in specific areas, like your legs. Thomas Peterson, a family doctor in Winter Haven, says that headaches are common to both illnesses, though a headache which accompanies the flu is typically more severe and may even feel like a migraine.
Colds and the flu may get lumped together when people talk about the winter months. In truth, though, the symptoms are quite dissimilar. If you’re unsure which one you have, speak with your doctor. Knowing the right treatment protocol could mean the difference between a long illness and a quick recovery.