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Cold or the Flu?

Cold or the Flu?


Because both viral respiratory illnesses cause similar, often overlapping symptoms, distinguishing between them can be difficult.

Here are four key differences between a cold and the flu:

While both spread easily from person to person through the air, personal contact and bodily discharge (like saliva or from fluids from coughing or sneezing), they are caused by different viruses. The flu is caused by different strains or types of the influenza virus specifically, while a common cold can be derived from multiple viruses, the most common one being rhinovirus. To understand if an individual is experiencing the flu, consulting a doctor is recommended. They will assess one’s symptoms and might recommend getting tested to determine the nature of the virus.

Symptoms common to both conditions include body aches, fatigue, headache, sore throat, cough, and nasal congestion or a runny or stuffy nose. However, the flu typically involves high grade fever as well (often 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), unlike a cold. Another distinguishing symptom is chills (shaking or shivering), which are common with influenza but not with colds. And overall, cold symptoms are usually milder than flu symptoms.

There are also differences in the onset of conditions, with a cold’s symptoms starting more gradually, while the flu’s symptoms begin more abruptly and rapidly escalate. Cold symptoms tend to improve after a week. In the case of the flu, it can gradually improve over two to five days, but effects can also last over a week.

The flu can also lead to more serious complications when compared to a cold. Influenza can become a serious condition leading to hospitalization, especially amongst at-risk individuals with comorbidities, including lung or heart problems, diabetes, or hypertension. Lung infections or pneumonia are also associated with complications.

Understanding these distinctions is critical for guiding needed care. 

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