Public Health

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

Alyssa Orcuilo07 Jun 2021

Quick Digest:

  • If you become sick, it is important to determine the cause of your illness so that you can get proper treatment. There are some medications, such as Tamiflu that can shorten the duration of the flu.
  • Distinguishing between a cold and the flu can be difficult. 
  • To figure out if you have a cold or the flu, just ask yourself the 5 following questions:
     

1. What are your symptoms? 

Flu symptoms may have a sudden onset, whereas the common cold may feel more gradual, beginning with a sore throat, followed by congestion and perhaps a cough. You can refer to the chart below to track the symptoms you‚re feeling.

When you have the flu, you may have an intense headache, severe aches, intense fatigue, and sneezing and chills. With a cold, however, it's rare that you'd have a fever and aches, but you could develop slight body aches, fatigue, and sneezing.

Both the flu and cold may result in a stuffy nose or sore throat.
 

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2. How long have you been feeling sick?

Since the symptoms of the common cold typically come on gradually, they also progress slowly for about a week. Whereas flu symptoms come on much more rapidly and with less warning.

3. Is it time to visit the doctor?

If you‚re having a difficult time determining whether you have a common cold or the flu, it may be time to visit your doctor before things get worse. There are rapid lab tests your doctor may administer that can tell if a person has the flu. If you do have the flu, you may also be able to obtain a prescription to shorten the length and severity.

4. Should you use an online doctor (telehealth/telemedicine)? 

Until recently,  most have to go see a doctor to get diagnosed in person. Companies like MDLive, Teladoc, and LemonAid allow you to skip the trip and get care online. 

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This, however, does come with many drawbacks. One of which is the ability to administer the rapid lab test to accurately determine if you have the flu. Because of this, many patients get overprescribed for medications they otherwise may not need or no medications at all. 

5. How to manage symptoms with over-the-counter medications?

Whether you have a common cold or the flu, be sure to drink plenty of water, pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) can also help. 

To relieve congestion you may want to take a decongestant like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) or nasal steroids like Flonase (fluticasone). Be sure to consult with your doctor to make sure these medications are right for you.

The Centers for Disease Control also suggests several (prescription) antiviral medications to treat the flu which you may be able to obtain from a doctor.