By Troy Frink at Medicare Plan Finder

Influenza (the flu) and the common cold are both upper respiratory infections that can pop up any time throughout the year but they’re usually the most prevalent in the colder months. Respiratory illnesses are infections of the body’s respiratory system, which includes the nose, sinuses, mouth, throat, voicebox, windpipe, and lungs. Both the common cold and the flu affect your body’s upper respiratory system, which consists of the nose, sinuses, and throat.

These illnesses are extremely common. It can be easy to ignore the symptoms, and difficult to determine whether your symptoms are the common cold or you have influenza. However, both can have some serious consequences if don’t take them seriously! Luckily, there are several things you can do to prevent or treat both. Read on to learn how to spot the differences between the cold and flu.

Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

Colds can have symptoms in common with the flu, making it difficult to determine which one you have.

It’s crucial that you find out early on what you have, because the treatment plan may be different for either one. The flu can also lead to more complications, so it’s best to detect the illness as soon as possible.

The CDC says that you should see a doctor to be tested for the flu within the first few days of symptoms. However, there’s a chance you just have a cold. There are a few differences in symptoms you can assess on your own to start.

Mainly, if you have a fever and chills, you should definitely see the doctor to find out if you have the flu because those symptoms are more common to influenza than they are to a common cold. Both colds and the flu can come with headaches, fatigue, nasal congestion, and sometimes even body aches or pains.

Usually, you don’t experience flu symptoms gradually like you do with a cold. You might feel fantastic one day, but terrible the next. Most people will also have a fever and chills that last for several days with the flu, while a fever is less common with a cold.

Colds tend to be much less severe. If you aren’t sure which one you have, check with your doctor. This is definitely a situation where it’s better to be safe.

Flu Symptoms and Causes

Influenza can be devastating if you miss it. The flu is different from a cold. It’s often more severe and sudden. For instance, most people who have influenza experience a fever. Other symptoms include:

  • Feverish chills
  • Cough and sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches & pains
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Even if you do not experience all of the listed symptoms, it doesn’t mean you don’t have the flu. Remember — always see your doctor if you aren’t sure.

Your doctor might perform an official flu test for diagnostic purposes. Your treatment plan may be the same whether or not you have the flu. Influenza is a viral infection. Therefore, it can’t be treated with antibiotics, which only treat bacterial infections.

While both the flu and cold are viral infections, the flu is unlike the common cold in that it can lead to life-threatening complications and illnesses such as pneumonia, sinus infections, and ear infections. Other complications can include heart inflammation, muscle inflammation, brain inflammation, and even organ failure.

People who have other preexisting conditions such as asthma or heart disease are at a much higher risk of complications with influenza.

If you experience any of these more severe symptoms, it is crucial that you get to an urgent care facility or emergency room right away:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe chest or abdominal pain
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Seizures
  • Inability to urinate
  • Severe muscle or body pain
  • Severe weakness
  • High fever
  • Severe dehydration
  • Worsening of other chronic conditions

Technically, there are three different kinds of the influenza virus. Types A and B are what cause the annual flu outbreak that your doctors tell you to get vaccinated for. Type C is typically much milder than types A and B.

Common Cold Symptoms

The common cold can look and feel slightly different in everyone. However, some common symptoms of a cold are:

  • Runny nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headaches
  • Mild body aches
  • Fatigue

When to See Your Doctor

While you should always see a doctor if you aren’t sure whether you have a cold or the flu, that advice becomes especially important with certain symptoms. You should definitely see a doctor if you experience shortness of breath, wheezing, severe pain, a fever that persists for more than 24 hours, or you have a fever that climbs to over 101.3 degrees.

You may have to visit an urgent care facility if you can’t see your primary doctor right away. Your provider may be able to prescribe an antiviral medication within the first two days of getting the flu, but it likely won’t be effective beyond the 48-hour window.

Otherwise, the best course of treatment is drinking plenty of clear liquids and getting enough rest.

How to Prevent Colds and Flu

You can help prevent influenza by getting a flu shot every year. The flu shot doesn’t give you influenza, and usually, any uncomfortable side effects from a flu vaccine subside within a few days.

The common cold can largely be prevented by washing your hands thoroughly and avoiding touching your mouth, eyes, or nose before you do. Thorough hand washing is especially important when you’re in public. If possible, avoid contact with anyone else who is sick.

Pro tip: a little splash of soap and water is not enough before you dry your hands. A thorough hand-washing takes about 20 seconds of actively rubbing your hands together with soap, or the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

Your Doctor Is Your Best Resource for Cold and Flu Prevention and Treatment

Even though a cold and the flu may look and feel the same in some cases, you should see a doctor if your symptoms are something over-the-counter products won’t treat completely. To recap, chills and a fever may indicate that you have influenza, rather than a cold.

If you have more questions about colds and influenza including how to tell the difference, talk to your doctor. Your provider will give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about treatment and prevention so you can stay healthy.