You wake up with a sore throat. As the morning progresses, your head starts to hurt also. Are you more likely to have an influenza (flu) virus or the common cold? In many cases, because the symptoms overlap, it’s difficult to know for sure unless you get tested within the first couple of days of getting sick.
You may never know for sure without getting tested. But here are some common differences that can help you identify the flu vs. the common cold.
The influenza virus circulates in different forms, but generally there are a handful of dominant strains each season. Typical flu symptoms can include a fever, cough, body aches, and fatigue. Symptoms that are possible, but less typical, include a stuffy nose, sore throat, and sneezing. The flu can lead to more severe conditions such as pneumonia.
Some people consider the stomach flu to be similar, but it’s properly called gastroenteritis. If you experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other symptoms of the “stomach flu”, these are caused by an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Such inflammation can result from food poisoning, a bacterial infection, or a virus of some sort. It’s probably not the same as the influenza virus. However, some children suffering from the flu also experience nausea and vomiting.
The common cold can be caused by many different viruses. There are more than 100 possible villains, including rhinovirus, adenovirus, and coronavirus. All of them affect the upper respiratory system. The most common symptoms are a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, sneezing, and coughing. Headaches and fever are rare, but possible. The cold does not usually lead to pneumonia or other ailments.
Difference # 1: Onset of Symptoms
Influenza comes on quickly, whereas cold symptoms tend to build more gradually. Most commonly, the flu could come with a headache, sore throat, or body aches which develop quickly. The incubation period for the flu is 1-4 days (2 days on average) between the time you got infected and started exhibiting these symptoms.
The cold virus often develops more slowly and it can progress through a range of symptoms. It may begin as a runny nose or sore throat and persist that way for one or more days before you develop a more serious stuffy nose or cough. The common cold has a similar incubation period (1-3 days between exposure and symptoms).
Difference # 2: Severity of Fever
Some people think that if you get a fever, you must have the flu rather than a cold. This is usually true, but not always. It is possible to get a fever along with the common cold, but this is somewhat rare. It happens more often with children. But if there is a fever, it is generally a mild one.
If someone has a high temperature fever, then it is most likely that he or she has the flu. A fever is one of the most common symptoms of the flu. And if the fever temperature is high (101 F degrees or higher, about 38.3 C degrees), then that’s probably the flu. Children can have higher fevers.
Difference # 3: Duration of the Symptoms
Influenza generally affects most people for 3-7 days of illness, though the symptoms and effects may continue for two weeks or even longer. The common cold usually lasts for about 3-4 days, but you may have some symptoms for 7-10 days. Like many of the symptoms, these duration periods overlap and are not necessarily clear indicators of whether you have had the flu or a common cold. The flu generally has more severe symptoms and a longer period of impact.
Lessening the Duration
When you get sick with the cold or flu, doctors always recommend drinking plenty of fluids. This is critically important, since your body needs to be able to flush itself out. Don’t limit yourself to water; it is important to have some vitamins and minerals in there also. Soups, juices, and teas are generally good.
Make sure you drink lots of fluids. And make sure you eat something also, since your body needs to maintain its strength. A balanced diet is best, including some protein, fruits and veggies, carbohydrates, and fats.
Sleep is important also. It’s the time when our bodies heal themselves. While we are moving around, keeping the body busy, there may not be enough downtime for it to recovery efficiently from one of these viruses. Get plenty of rest and sleep. Take naps when you feel particularly fatigued.
Zinc, elderberry extract, vitamin C, and the herb Echinacea have all been touted as helping the immune system. Various cultures have other folk remedies as well, from raw onions to lemon ginger tea to radishes and honey. If you believe the hype or have a friend who swears it works, then you might wish to try one or more of these in the hopes that it will decrease the duration and severity of your illness. Clinical evidence is mixed so we cannot say for sure that these work. But if they help nourish your body and give you a reason to drink more fluids, they probably won’t hurt either.
Remember, there are hundreds of different viruses circulating out there. In the end, perhaps it does not matter too much whether you have influenza or the common cold. In either case, you’ll be weakened for a few days. Hopefully, if you take good care of yourself, you’ll be back on your feet and back to normal life soon enough.
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