Home Conditions and Diseases Is it a cold or the flu? 9 easy ways to find out

Is it a cold or the flu? 9 easy ways to find out

written by Vidya Sury September 14, 2019
Is it a cold or the flu? 9 ways to tell and what to do

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That runny nose, body ache and headache could signal a cold. But wait! Is it a cold or the flu? Before you reach for some soup and over the counter medicine, stop.

You need to know if it is a cold or the flu before you start any treatment. If it is the flu, treatment is effective when it is started within 48 hours of experiencing its symptoms. The flu can result in serious complications such as lung infections and pneumonia. A timely visit to your doctor can help you recover quickly with prescription antiviral medicine.

Is it a cold or the flu - 9 ways to find out

How to tell if it is a cold or the flu

1. Flu: gets worse rapidly, the cold is slower

When it is the flu, it develops rapidly. One moment you are fine. And then suddenly, your throat is sore, you’ve got the fever, along with a headache, body ache, congestion and a horrible cough.  With a cold, the discomfort is not so intense—it starts with a runny or stuffy nose. Once you start medication for the flu, you’ll start feeling better in 3-5 days even though you continue to feel weak for much longer. The common cold grows on you slowly and you recover in 7-10 days.

2. A fever usually means the flu

A cold may or may not come with a mild fever but if it is the flu, fever is a given. In fact, children tend to have higher fevers than adults.

3. When you have the flu, you feel exhausted for weeks

The symptoms of flu—fatigue and aches usually last long after you recover—sometimes up to three weeks or longer depending on how old you are and any underlying medical issues and a compromised immune system.  If it is just a cold, that feeling of being sick lasts only a few days.

4. Both the cold and flu come with a headache

However, the headache caused by the flu is much worse than that caused by the cold.

5. Coughs

Both the cold and flu are respiratory illnesses that affect your airways. Both result in coughing. But flu can also cause pneumonia via a lung infection. See your doctor if you experience the following:

  • cough that lasts longer than three days
  • fever of 102 F or more along with the chills
  • difficulty breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain while coughing

6. Cold and flu both cause earache

Both the cold and the flu cause congestion and this raises pressure in the ear, affecting the Eustachian tube, which connects your throat to your middle ear. Result? Ear pain. Sometimes, it can lead to hearing loss and that “popping” in your ears. As you recover from the cold or the flu, this eases off with the other symptoms. If your earache lasts longer than your cold/flue, or if the pain increases rapidly, do see your doctor to rule out a ear infection and appropriate treatment.

7. Your sore throat could signal a cold

That raspy feeling in the throat? This could just be a symptom that usually lasts 1-2 days, along with a runny or stuffy nose. Sore throats can also come with the flu but with the flu, you’ll also be exhausted and have a bunch of other symptoms.

8. Stuffy Nose could be a Cold

A stuffy nose, a runny nose. Some sneezing. Could be the cold. Unless accompanied by fever, body ache, lethargy—when it could be the flu. Cold and flu can both lead to sinus infections and severe headaches. Besides the greenish-yellow nasal discharge, sinus infections can lead to headaches and pain in the forehead, cheeks and nasal bridge, which gets worse with sudden movement. A secondary bacterial infection is also possible, requiring treatment with antibiotics.

9. Identifying flu

The fastest way to diagnose whether you have the flu or a cold is to visit your doctor, who will then take a nasal or throat swab to identify if you have the flu virus within the hour. If your test indicates that you have the flu and you started your symptoms within the last 48 hours, antiviral medicines may be prescribed so you can recover soon. The medication makes you feel better within a day or two especially if diagnosis is within 48 hours of your symptoms. Some over the counter meds can also help with cough and congestion. Make sure you read the label and instructions. Better still, just consult a doctor.

What to do when you have a cold or the flu

There are a number of treatment options. Of course, the ideal thing to do is to consult your doctor rather than go for self-medication.

1. Be cautious while using over-the-counter medication for colds

Pharmacies sell a range of over-the-counter medications like decongestants, cough suppressants and antihistamines to help cough, congestion and other symptoms. They also offer painkillers to relieve that headache. Self-medication is always risky. It is important to read the list of active ingredients on the label and the warnings, too. Aspirin is never given to children under 18. When used to treat the flu in children, it can lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Read Natural remedies for strep throat infections

2. Make sure you wash your hands

During the cold/flu season or if you suspect a cold or the flu, wash your hands properly to avoid spreading cold/flu to others. Just use soap and warm water, rubbing your hands together for a few seconds. Include the area between your fingers and nails. Rinse thoroughly and dry. An alcohol-based hand-sanitizer also works—and it is convenient to carry around with you.  Wash your hands especially after you cough or sneeze or blow your nose. Carry tissues. No tissue? Sneeze or cough into your elbow instead of your hands.

3. Get Vaccinated

Before flu/cold season begins, get a flu shot to help your body fight the symptoms when you are exposed to the flu and protect you from it. Who should get a flu shot?

  • Children older than 6 months
  • Pregnant women
  • Those who are 50 years and older
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • People with chronic illnesses

Read: 10 foods to help fight the flu

If you have an uncontrollable cough, try these 10 home remedies.

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