Cold or Flu?

Do I have the cold or the flu?

It can often be difficult to tell them apart. However the following tips might help you distinguish between them. A cold is generally milder than the flu, and is often accompanied with a runny nose. You may or may not have a fever, usually low grade (≤ 38,5). Symptoms often last only a few days.

Flu symptoms are often accompanied with systemic symptoms, such as muscle aches, extreme tiredness, and headache. Fever tends to be high (≥ 38,5) and lasts longer. You may even experience some gastrointestinal symptoms, like vomiting or diarrhea. The flu can result in severe complications like pneumonia and even hospitalization.

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Cold or Flu? : A table with an overview of the symptoms

SymptomsColdFlu
Fever Not always, usually mild (<38,5°C) Sometimes
Stuffy or runny nose Very common Sometimes
Sneezing Common Sometimes
Sore throat Common Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough Mild, often dry cough Sometimes
General aches, pains Minimal Almost always, can be very sensitive
Headache Occasionally, esp. with stuffed nose and sinuses Common
Fatigue, weakness Sometimes Almost always, can last up to 3 weeks
Extreme exhaustion Never Common, esp. at beginning of illness

When do I call the doctor with flu or cold symptoms?

If you have any of the following severe symptoms:

  • Continuing high fever despite of medication – Your cold may be masking an infection, something that needs to be treated with antibiotics.
  • Difficulty swallowing saliva – An extremely sore throat that makes it difficult to swallow saliva is a sign of a Streptococcus infection, or Strep throat. That infection can have serious systemic effects and needs to be treated with antibiotics.
  • Persistent coughing – If you´re still coughing after a couple of weeks, you could have bronchitis or even asthma. Mild asthma is often diagnosed after a bout of bronchitis. You may need antibiotics or even asthma medication.
  • Persistent headaches and congestion – A prolonged blockage of the sinuses can lead to infection, or sinusitis. If you have persistent headaches originating in the forehead or cheekbones, or a constant ache around the eyes after a cold, you might need an antibiotic.

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How do I prevent the flu?

The single best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated each year.

Certain people, such as those who are immuno-compromised, have chronic underlying conditions such as asthma or other lung diseases, the elderly and the very young should get vaccinated each year; as they are at risk for serious flu-related complications.

Also those individuals who work in the health care sector, or care for a family member at home who might be at-risk, those who work in crowded environments, and those that work in very public environments (school teachers, train conductors, bus drivers etc.). These individuals have an increased risk of contracting the flu and can also cause it to spread more rapidly because of the number of people they come into contact with.

Vaccination not only helps to reduce the chance of contracting the flu, it also helps to reduce the spread of flu in the community.