Do You Have The Flu Or Just A Cold? Here's How To Tell The Difference.

Plus tips for taking care of yourself.
Protect yourself this cold and flu season.
tommaso79 via Getty Images
Protect yourself this cold and flu season.

The flu doesn’t play around. The disease and complications from it kill thousands of people in the United States each year.

Why are some flu seasons are so rough compared with others? It all comes down to the type of flu that’s spreading, according to Margarita Rohr, a clinical instructor of medicine at New York University’s Langone Health. Much like COVID, some strains are more powerful and better at infecting people than others.

Given that, the first signs of the sniffles might induce panic. (Especially if you haven’t had a flu shot ― which you should always get each season, by the way.) But there are distinct differences between a run-of-the-mill cold and flu symptoms, and there are ways to manage both to get you feeling better as soon as possible.

Below, experts break down the warning signs that distinguish whether you’re dealing with the flu versus a cold, plus tips on how to nurse yourself back to health.

The Difference Between A Cold And The Flu

There are distinct differences in symptoms between colds and flus, but people often have trouble distinguishing them at first.
svetikd via Getty Images
There are distinct differences in symptoms between colds and flus, but people often have trouble distinguishing them at first.

Flu symptoms are typically more intense.

A cold and the flu have symptoms that overlap, such as a sore throat, fever, cough, headache, congestion, sneezing. However, the severity of the symptoms is usually what sets the flu apart, Rohr said.

She added that “a major symptom of the flu is muscle and body aches, which can be severe. Body aches or muscle aches may be mild, if present at all, with a common cold.”

Flu symptoms also appear quickly.

If you feel fine during the day and then all of a sudden feel sick when you get home, chances are you might be coming down with the flu. Colds usually take a little more time to develop, according to Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand.

“You can go from well to sick within just a few hours [if you have the flu],” Tong said. Symptoms may start with a cough but then will rapidly progress to a high fever, body aches and fatigue, he said.

Your body will feel more run down with the flu.

Are you feeling under the weather but could force yourself to go to the office? You’re probably dealing with a cold rather than the flu.

“Extreme exhaustion could also be indicative of the flu,” Rohr said. “This symptom can sometimes last for weeks, whereas with the common cold, this symptom is usually mild and limited, if present at all.”

How To Take Care Of Yourself

Certain foods, like chicken soup, can help ease symptoms.
Jena Ardell via Getty Images
Certain foods, like chicken soup, can help ease symptoms.

See a doctor for a prescription ASAP.

There are treatments for the flu through prescriptions like Tamiflu, an antiviral medication that may reduce the length of the illness. But you have to act fast.

“The treatment window for flu is usually within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms,” Tong said.

Get lots of rest.

Congratulations, your bed is now your new best friend. Lay low and relax as much as possible.

“One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to allow your body to rest while you are feeling under the weather,” Tong said. “Resting gives your body a chance to fight off the infection and can help boost your immune system.”

Stay hydrated and eat good foods.

This goes for the flu or a common cold. You tend to get dehydrated due to fever sweats or lack of appetite, Tong said.

“Drinking warm and hot liquids can aid in rehydrating your body and [alleviate] symptoms such as congestion, sore throat and coughing,” he said. “Healthy soups and broths may also help in feeding your body the nutrients it needs while recovering.”

Use home remedies to help ease your symptoms.

Items you already have on hand in your medicine cabinet or at home may help abate some of the nasty side effects of your illness.

“Using a humidifier may make it easier to breathe,” Rohr said. “Fevers can be treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Cough drops may soothe a dry or sore throat and help lessen the cough.”

Take a bath or shower.

“If you are experiencing a chill or a fever, taking a warm bath or cool shower could offer some comfort,” Tong said. “Adding shower or bath bombs containing eucalyptus, menthol or other essential oils could make the experience more pleasant.”

Seek additional medical care if the symptoms become too much.

The flu makes you more susceptible to other illnesses, like bronchitis, pneumonia and sinusitis, according to Rohr. If you’re experiencing chest pains, dizziness or difficulty breathing, it’s best to seek a health professional right away to make sure something more severe isn’t occurring, she stressed.

It’s also important to monitor your fever, keeping a close eye on major spikes as well as the actual temperature. A high fever of up to 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a rapid heart rate or shortness of breath shouldn’t be ignored, Tong said.

Get well soon!

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