Flu Symptoms: Is it a Cold or the Flu?


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It’s January and you feel awful. Instead of celebrating the new year and making a list of resolutions, you’re coughing, have a splitting headache, and feel warm to the touch. Welcome to cold and flu season in Maryland. You know that your symptoms will pass, but perhaps you don’t know which of these viruses someone has shared with you. Since you need to treat a cold and flu differently, knowing the difference between them is essential.

Common Symptoms of Cold and Flu

Colds and the flu are both respiratory infections caused by a virus. If what you’re experiencing is a cold, you will have at least a few of the following symptoms:

  • Body ache
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Mild fatigue
  • Runny and/or stuffy nose

Some flu symptoms overlap with those of a cold, such as a cough. The difference is that a cold tends to produce a phlegmy cough while the cough of someone who has the flu is drier and sounds hacking. The two viruses also have headaches, stuffy nose, and runny nose in common.

Other symptoms unique to the flu include:

  • Chills and shaking
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever that runs moderate to high, although not everyone who has the flu runs a fever
  • Muscle pain and/or body ache that can become severe
  • Nausea
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting

Some of the above symptoms overlap with the common cold as well except that they are typically more severe. A cold generally develops slowly over a few days and lasts one to two weeks. Symptoms of the flu usually come on suddenly and can be severe. The duration ranges from a few days to up to two weeks. If you determine that you have the flu after reading these lists, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider at UPMC Western Maryland as soon as possible for testing.

Understanding the Common Cold

According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 100 million different types of viruses can cause what we know as the common cold. Rhinovirus, the most prevalent and contagious of these viruses, is associated with colds most often. You can acquire the cold virus during any season, but it’s most common to get sick with a cold in the winter. That is because the rhinovirus and its 100 million cousins spread quickly from one person to the next and thrive in conditions of low humidity.

Cold viruses spread when someone who already has a cold sneezes or coughs. Even when the person uses a tissue or covers his or her mouth, it still releases small amounts of saliva containing the virus into the air. You can also catch a cold by touching a surface that the infected person touched and then rubbing your eyes, mouth, or nose. You’re most likely to develop a cold in the first two to four days after exposure to someone else’s virus.

There’s currently no cure for the common cold, but you can do several things to lessen the severity of your symptoms as your body fights off the infection. Non-prescription medications containing an antihistamine, acetaminophen, and decongestants can help to relieve symptoms of body aches, coughing, congestion, and other typical cold symptoms. You may also wish to increase your consumption of Vitamin C.

If your cold doesn’t resolve within 10 days or your symptoms get worse, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. It could turn out that you have something else. Practicing good hygiene and staying away from people who already have a cold are the best ways to prevent catching a cold.

Flu 101

Flu, also known as influenza, tends to follow seasonal patterns. It starts in the fall and ends in the spring with a big peak during the winter months. You acquire the flu virus the same way you pick up a cold, which is direct or indirect contact with someone who already has it. Unfortunately, you can become contagious before you have your first flu symptoms and remain that way until up to a week later.

Influenza A, B, or C viruses are responsible for spreading flu symptoms, and the first two types are the most common. Active strains of the flu change from one year to the next. This explains why the flu vaccine changes annually as well.

Symptoms that start as influenza can develop into pneumonia and other serious conditions. The risk is highest for young children, pregnant women, and older adults as well as those who already have a weakened immune system due to diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions.

Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and getting a lot of rest are two good ways to treat the flu. Non-prescription pain relievers and decongestants can help as well. If your child develops the flu, don’t give him or her aspirin as it could increase the risk of developing a rare condition known as Reye’s syndrome.

You can reduce the time you’re sick with the flu by taking an antiviral medication, but you need to start taking it within 48 hours of symptom development or it won’t be effective.

Symptoms of possible pneumonia or another serious condition resulting from the flu include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Chest pain
  • A cough that produces green mucus
  • High fever that doesn’t resolve with medication
  • Severely sore throat

The symptoms to look for in children include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Extreme fatigue and/or difficulty waking up
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interaction with family

These issues require prompt medical attention, which could require going to the emergency room or one of our urgent care centers, depending on time of day and severity of symptoms.

UPMC Western Maryland recommends that all people over age six months receive an annual flu shot as early in the season as possible. Please ask your primary care provider for possible exceptions if you’re concerned that you’re not healthy enough to receive the vaccine.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.