Is it the common cold or the flu?headingContent

Posted on February 14, 2019

a close up of a virus (3d rendering)

An age old question primary care doctors regularly face:

Do you think it’s the cold or the flu?
The common cold and influenza, more commonly known as the flu, are both viral infections. There are hundreds of viruses that cause the common cold while there are much fewer strains of influenza. While both have origins as respiratory illnesses and have similar symptoms, flu symptoms are typically more severe. Fever, fatigue and body aches are more common symptoms of influenza; the symptoms can keep individuals from work or school for up to one to two weeks. Also, the flu can lead to health ailments, including pneumonia and other bacterial infections, and may even lead to hospitalization.

Common cold symptoms present less severely than the flu.
While signs and symptoms of influenza usually start abruptly, the symptom onset for the common cold is gradual. Fever is rare with the common cold. Both illnesses can produce a cough, but the common cold is more likely to include nasal or sinus symptoms, like sneezing, stuffy nose, and sore throat. The combination of symptoms can cause fatigue, but individuals with common cold usually have enough energy to continue their daily routines.

Flu recommendations.
Individuals at the highest risk for getting sick with influenza are children ages two and younger, adults ages 65 and older, and any individual with multiple chronic medical conditions. Organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and American College of Physicians (ACP) all recommend the flu shot for children and adults. The AAP recommends that all children ages six months and older receive a flu shot.

The CDC recommends that if an infant is unable to eat, has trouble breathing, has no tears when crying and has significantly fewer wet diapers than normal, to get medical help right away.

Emergency signs of flu sickness.
According to the CDC, children of infants with rapid or difficulty breathing, bluish skin color, poor appetite, decreased activity or drowsiness, and/or irritability should be seen emergently by a medical professional. Another concerning scenario would be flu-like symptoms that improve but than return as any combination of fever, worsening cough and rash. Emergency signs of influenza in adults include difficulty breathing, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, and severe or persistent vomiting.

Being aware of the differences between a bold and flu can help determine treatment options. Consult a primary care physician to determine options to prevent and treat cold or flu.