Cold vs. flu: Which is which and what to do

Published: November 27th, 2011

Category: Student Health Care Center Blog

If you sneeze, use a tissue and throw it away immediately.You’re coughing, sneezing, achy and have a sore throat. You might have a cold or the flu, but how can you tell the difference?

How can I tell if I have a cold?

Common colds are caused by viruses and usually last seven to 14 days. A cold is a milder respiratory infection than the flu and can make you feel bad for a few days to a week. Unfortunately, there is no cure, so you’ll have to wait for your body’s immune system to clear the infection.

Following are some common symptoms of a cold:

  • Sore throat
  • Clear, watery nasal drainage
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Congested nose
  • Cough

How can I tell if I have the flu?

Influenza or the flu is an acute, contagious, viral infection that causes fever, headache, muscles aches and a cough. It usually doesn’t cause the runny nose or nasal congestion that comes with a cold — though people may still self-diagnose a particularly nasty common cold as the flu, especially in the winter months.

Generally, individuals with the flu have severe symptoms such as:

  • High fever
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headache and body aches
  • Chills and extreme fatigue

What can I do to feel better?

You want to feel better fast, but prescription drugs aren’t the answer for every illness. Antibiotics cannot cure viral infections like the common cold, most coughs and the flu.

Using antibiotics for a virus:

  • Will NOT cure the infection
  • Will NOT help you feel better
  • Will NOT keep others from catching your illness

Try the following remedies to feel better:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Gargle with warm salt water.
  • Breathe steam from hot beverages, soup or take a hot shower to help with nasal congestion.
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants and cough suppressants.

How can I avoid colds and the flu?

Following are some tips on how to avoid contracting these illnesses:

  • Take the time and get an annual flu shot.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Keep your immune system in good shape by getting eight hours of sleep a night.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Drink plenty of fluids daily.

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