Viral variation: How to tell a cold from the flu

They’re both viral infections, and they both make you feel miserable, so how can you distinguish between the common cold and influenza (flu)?

Generally, flu symptoms are more severe – with greater emphasis on body ache, chills and fever. People who are ill with the flu can develop deadly complications. The flu has the potential to turn into something more serious, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. This is especially true among high-risk populations, which include young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems or who suffer from chronic illness.

A cold usually infects your nose and throat, while the flu can take up residence in your nose, throat, bronchial tubes and even lungs.

Many also mistakenly refer to stomach bugs that cause diarrhea and vomiting – known medically as gastroenteritis – as influenza. Gastroenteritis is actually an irritation of the stomach and intestines, though viruses are responsible for many of these cases.


Cold symptoms may not show up until one to three days after you’ve been exposed to the virus. Symptoms may include a runny or stuffy nose, itchy or sore throat, cough, congestion, body aches, headache, a low-grade fever and mild fatigue. With the flu, symptoms come on more suddenly– and you’ll likely feel worse. Symptoms of the flu include a fever greater than 100°F, chills and sweats, headache, dry cough and aching muscles – especially in your back, arms and legs. If you have the flu, you’ll also feel weak and extremely tired.


  • Fever up to 100°F
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Slight headache
  • Watery eyes


  • Fever greater than 100°F
  • Stuffy nose
  • Chills and sweats
  • Cough
  • Muscle aches concentrated in back, arms and legs
  • Fatigue
  • Severe headache
  • Loss of appetite

Getting real about getting sick

Going outside with a wet head or without a coat will not – no matter what your mother or auntie says – get you sick. You just can’t catch a virus that way. Flu and cold viruses are transmitted by direct contact with an infected person. Microscopic droplets from an infected person’s respiratory system end up somewhere – and if you touch that somewhere and then put your hands to your face, you’ve likely infected yourself. Washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth will help limit your exposure to any of the 250 viruses that cause colds or the numerous subtypes of influenza A and B (the two main types of influenza virus) that circulate during flu season.

Prevention and treatment

Hand washing is the best prevention against the spread of germs. In addition to washing your hands frequently, be sure to wipe down computer keyboards, telephones and other surfaces with which you come in frequent contact. If you’re in contact with people and shared surfaces frequently throughout the day and don’t have the access or opportunity to wash your hands, use alcohol-based gel sanitizer instead. Be courteous by coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm (not your hands), and stay away from crowded places if you think you may be coming down with a cold or flu.

The best defense against the flu is simple: get a flu shot annually. Still, a shot does not provide complete protection from getting the flu. You may still become ill with a strain that’s not covered by the vaccine. A flu shot, however, can protect an individual from developing complications of the flu.

If you get the flu, taking an antiviral drug within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms can help reduce your symptoms as well as reduce the time you are contagious. Antibiotics, however, which are used to fight bacterial infections, are useless with regard to fighting the flu.

While there is still no cure for the common cold or the flu, there are common, time-honored remedies that will help ease your suffering:

  • Fluids. Water, juice, lemon water and even chicken soup can help rehydrate your body to replace fluids lost through mucus production and fever.
  • Rest. Taking it easy gives your body a better chance to fight infection. Consider staying home when you are unwell – especially if you have a fever. Your colleagues or classmates will thank you for keeping your germs to yourself – and you’ll likely be more productive if you return to work healthy.
  • Humidity. Moist air can ease coughing and help with congestion. Saline nasal drops or spray also can help relieve congestion.
  • Salt. Sore throats – typical with colds more than the flu – can be soothed with a saltwater gargle. Add between ¼ and ½ teaspoon of salt to an 8-oz. glass of water.
  • Vitamin C. Taking vitamin C at the onset of a cold may shorten the duration of your symptoms.

A recent study shows that physical fitness can affect whether or not you become ill during the winter months. Those who exercised regularly experienced fewer colds. And if those who remained physically fit with a regular exercise regimen did get sick, their symptoms were far less severe than their non-exercising counterparts.

Young children and colds

If it seems like your toddler or preschooler has a runny nose more often than not, you’re likely not exaggerating. On average, young children can develop between six and 10 colds each year – but some may become sick with as many as a dozen – especially during fall and winter. With more than 200 different viruses that cause the common cold, children’s bodies are vulnerable because they haven’t yet built up immunity. Kids also are more likely to touch things and put their hands – or other objects – in their mouths or touch their eyes, which are both entry points for germs. Children who are around their peers for extended periods of time – in preschool or daycare – are more likely to get sick from close contact.