Is it a cold or flu? Here's how to tell

January 12, 2018

(HealthDay)—With a severe flu season now widespread across 46 states, do symptoms you or a loved one have point to the dreaded illness?

Amid the sniffles, coughing and , "it's sometimes difficult to determine whether you have the common cold or the flu," said Dr. Boris Khodorkovsky. He's associate chair of emergency medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City.

But it's an important question, he said, because while colds and flu share some symptoms, flu can become severe enough to land you in the hospital.

Certain symptoms—runny nose, congestion, sneezing, minor body aches and fever—are common to both maladies. But "your alarm should go off when you start experiencing and chills"—that's most probably the flu, Khodorkovsky said.

He said "high fever" is typically thought of in this context as 101 degrees or above, but lower fevers can sometimes occur in otherwise severe flu.

Dr. Len Horovitz, an emergency physician at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, agreed. He added that one thing to watch for is how quickly the illness escalates.

"The common cold can come on slowly—sore throat, sneezing, cough, fever—while the flu is rapid in onset," Horovitz said. "The onset of flu is also often "accompanied by severe body aches, weakness and sometimes skin sensitivity," he added.

If it is influenza, the standard advice applies, Khodorkovsky said. "It's important to take fever-reducing medications, stay at home and away from other family members as best possible, rest, and most importantly—hydrate."

Hydration can be with plain water or with broth, which helps nourish the body, too. That old standby, , can work wonders.

"There's research that suggests chicken soup can inhibit mucus production that will help alleviate a runny nose and cough," Khodorkovsky said.

"Sports drinks, preferably diluted with some water, will also replenish vital electrolytes and sugars," he added.

And medicines may help shorten the ordeal, Horovitz said. "The flu can be treated with Tamiflu if started within 48 hours of presentation," he said, while zinc supplements may help ease the common cold.

Of course, not every case of flu ebbs away on its own at home, and this U.S. flu season is already seeing a big spike in hospitalizations.

"If your symptoms persist and escalate, seek medical attention immediately," Khodorkovsky said. "Influenza can lead to respiratory complications like pneumonia, to even something more fatal."

Your best defense against colds and flu? Not getting one in the first place.

Hand washing is key, Khodorkovsky said.

"Flu travels via droplets in the air, but also can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours," he pointed out. "Think of all of the door knobs and handles you grab and hands you shake each day. I recommend washing your hands every one to two hours during this season.

And Horovitz added that this means only touching your face, mouth or other people if you know you've just washed your hands.

"Additionally, it's never too late in the season to get the ," Khodorkovsky said. "It's not a 100 percent guarantee, but [it] will protect you from the deadlier strains of the virus."

Explore further: When to see a doctor for the flu

More information: There's more on seasonal flu at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related Stories

When to see a doctor for the flu

February 28, 2017
You're feeling under the weather, but is it a cold or the flu? Sometimes it's hard to tell initially, and even more difficult to decide if you should make an appointment with your doctor. One Baylor College of Medicine expert ...

Is it a cold or the flu? Here's how to tell

December 30, 2016
(HealthDay)—It's a miserable feeling—you're exhausted, your throat hurts, and you're achy and feverish. But is it a cold or the flu?

Arm yourself against colds and flu this fall

September 26, 2011
The first few breezes of fall bring with them not only the promise of a welcome change in season, but also the threat of colds and flu.

Five things to know about coughing kids

December 22, 2017
Parents know the drill. First comes the sniffles, followed by congestion—and then finally, a persistent, hacking cough. And that cough can drag out for weeks, long after the other upper-respiratory symptoms clear up. Why ...

No, it's not too late to get a flu shot

January 8, 2018
Is it too late to get a flu shot?

'Tis the season for respiratory virus

December 20, 2017
There may be something in the air this holiday season, and it's not snow. It's something much less festive – respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Baylor College of Medicine expert Dr. Pedro A. Piedra breaks down the dangers ...

Recommended for you

A multimodal intervention to reduce one of the most common healthcare-acquired infections

March 16, 2018
Surgical site infections are the most frequent health care-associated infections in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this type of infection can affect up to one-third of surgical patients ...

New imaging approach offers unprecedented views of staph infection

March 14, 2018
Eric Skaar, PhD, MPH, marvels at the images on his computer screen—3-D molecular-level views of infection in a mouse. "I'm pretty convinced that these are the most advanced images in infection biology," said Skaar, Ernest ...

Parasitic worms need their intestinal microflora too

March 14, 2018
Scientists at The University of Manchester have cast new light on a little understood group of worm infections, which collectively afflicts 1 in 4 people, mainly children—in the developing the world.

Compound scores key win in battle against antibiotic resistance

March 14, 2018
Researchers at Oregon State University have made a key advance in the fight against drug resistance, crafting a compound that genetically neutralizes a widespread bacterial pathogen's ability to thwart antibiotics.

Helicobacter creates immune system blind spot

March 13, 2018
The gastric bacterium H. pylori colonizes the stomachs of around half the human population and can lead to the development of gastric cancer. It is usually acquired in childhood and persists life-long, despite a strong inflammatory ...

Taking the jab (and the chill) out of vaccination

March 13, 2018
Scientists in Cairns (Australia) and Cardiff (Wales) have taken an important first step towards solving two problems that hinder access to vaccines: they need to be kept cool, and no one likes needles.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.