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How To Tell The Difference Between A Cold And The Flu

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This semester, in particular, I've had a lot of my psychology students emailing
me to let me know they are sick and will be missing a class. They seem to
use "cold" and "flu" interchangeably. The flu is clearly more serious than a
cold though a cold might last longer and end up making a person more miserable.
So, I checked the CDC site, the Mayo clinic, and my local health dept site to
see what the differences are between having a cold and having the flu. Here
are what each of the three had in common (though they pretty much seemed to be
the same).

Colds and Flu are both caused by viruses and they have plenty of overlapping
symptoms. This can make it a bit harder to distinguish between the two.

Fever: If you have a fever you most likely have the flu though sometimes a
cold can cause a low fever.

Headache: Very common with the flu.

Sore Throat: More common in the cold than in the flu.

Fatigue: More common in the flu and can persist for as long as three weeks.

Cough: Less common in the flu and quite common with a cold.

Body Aches: Very common in the flu.

Generally, if you have a fever and body aches you probably have the flu. Those
two symptoms do the best job of distinguishing between the two illnesses.

From Scientific American (December 12, 2008), Lite, Jordan.

"Colds tend to produce runny nose, congestion, sore throat. Influenza is more 
pronounced in that it infects the lungs, the joints and causes pneumonia, 
respiratory failure and even death. It tends to infect the intestinal tract more 
in kids, with diarrhea and vomiting. Because of the relative immaturity of the 
gut, they may absorb more virus and that wreaks more havoc on the intestines. 
Flu causes epidemics and pandemics with the potential for mortality, whereas the 
common cold is a nuisance for us."

erick99 posted Mar 09, 2012


Zoey2011 (rep: 30) posted Mar 09, 2012


Good to know! This is a great reminder to start practicing those easy cold/flu prevention tips.

canis444 (rep: 263) posted Mar 09, 2012


Thanks. Now I know there is a differences. I always thought they mean the same thing.

barang_square (rep: 631) posted Mar 09, 2012


call it what you want, either way you still feel down in the dumps and lousy

chuckydealpl (rep: 59.7k) posted Mar 09, 2012


I know about the lousy part, I had the flu for 15 days pretty bad and another week of leftover symptoms that felt like a bad cold. It was over three weeks before I felt like all of the illness was gone.

erick99 (rep: 432k) posted Mar 09, 2012


Thanks erick99! I came down with something right before my midterms a couple days ago and it's still lingering. I've got a sore throat so I guess it's not the flu which is good news!

arsiel (rep: 13.1k) posted Mar 09, 2012


an easy way that i use to distinguish..though not completely looking at location. pretty much..neck the flu..neck up is the cold.

so like you pointed out..for colds, you can get headaches, congestion, coughs..etc..whereas the flu you have more body aches, sweatiness..sure..there's the fever..which is a high indication of the flu..but yeah..

keep in mond also that there are no meds really out there to cure the flu or cold. you can take meds to help you suppress the symptoms (cough suppressant, anti-emetic, anti-pyretic, etc.)..but the meds are only for you to suppress. also know what which symptoms you want to mask. not everyone needs robitussin DM..not everyone needs mucinex..

also keep in mind that since the cold and flu are caused by virus strains, there are no antibiotics that you can take. so many patients want an antibiotic because they claim that's what they need..and they persist that their physician order them one..sometimes physicians do it just to please the patient, but doesn't do anything to help you out..if anything, it's making your resistance worse for when you DO need antibiotics.

ask your pharmacist or physician if you have questions about what the medications are indicated for.

nimrodboy3 (rep: 68.2k) posted Mar 09, 2012


If you "have" to take more than a couple hours off of work, then it's the Flu. If you can work through it, it's just a cold.

MHT962 (rep: 3.3k) posted Mar 11, 2012