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Cold vs Flu

Is it a cold or the flu? Here’s how to tell the difference

Woman Sneezing

You wake up and you’ve got a cough, a sore throat and a stuffy nose. You feel a little achy, too, and you think you may have a bit of a fever. You are tired and you don’t want to drag yourself out of bed.

Yes, it’s that time of year again – cold and flu season. But which do you have? Is it the dreaded flu or just a common cold? Both are viral respiratory illnesses. They have similar symptoms. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some telltale signs can help you differentiate them.

The two major differences between a cold and the flu are how quickly the symptoms appear and their severity. The flu usually hits suddenly. You may start feeling feverish in the morning and have full-body aches by lunchtime. Colds typically develop gradually over a couple of days. You may have a sore throat today and develop a runny nose and cough tomorrow.

If you have the flu, you’re likely to have a fever, chills, headache, body aches and fatigue that can last up to two to three weeks. Sneezing, a sore throat and a stuffy nose are common cold symptoms.

Most people with the flu have mild illness, will not need medical care or antiviral drugs, and will recover in less than two weeks, according to the CDC. In those cases, the best thing to do is to stay home, get lots of rest and avoid contact with others to keep it from spreading. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after you are fever free without the use of medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium.

If you get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs are a treatment option. There are four FDA-approved antiviral drugs recommended by the CDC to treat the flu this season: Tamiflu, Relenza, Rapivab and Xofluza. Your health care provider can determine if and which antiviral medication is right for you.

Studies have shown that flu antiviral drugs work best when started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. When treatment begins within two days of becoming sick, antiviral drugs can reduce fever and lessen the severity of symptoms. But starting antiviral drugs later than 48 hours can still be beneficial, especially for people hospitalized with severe illness or at high risk of serious flu complications.

People in high-risk groups may want to seek medical attention. High-risk groups include adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, young children, residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, those with weakened immune systems because of disease or medication, and those with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

Anybody experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath should seek medical attention immediately. Breathing problems can be a sign of pneumonia, a common and serious complication of the flu.

If you need help finding the right care, call 864.512.3748 or visit