During the winter, when you’re feeling congested and miserable, you may find yourself wondering which you’re suffering from: a cold or the flu. After all, winter is the height of flu season. Of course, it’s also the height of cold season, so determining which virus you’re dealing with can be a little confusing. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis regarding whether it’s a cold or the flu , but understanding the difference between the two can help put your mind at ease until you make that appointment.
The Cold or the Flu: What’s the Difference?
Both illnesses are caused by viruses, and they share many common symptoms, which makes it so difficult to tell the difference. To make it even more complicated, “the common cold” can actually be caused by a number of different viruses. At last count, there were over 200 relatively common virus strains that can cause the common cold.
Influenza viruses are also plentiful, and are divided into three categories: A, B, and C. H1N1, formerly referred to as swine flu, is in category A. Both A and B are fairly common, while category C is reserved for the rarer strains. Flu shots contain strains of A and B influenza viruses.
The big question is, if both are caused by viruses and both have many of the same symptoms, why is it so important to determine whether it’s the cold or the flu? For the average healthy person, it may not be such a big deal. Both will cause misery for a short time before running their course, allowing you to return to normal. For some people, though, the flu can lead to much more serious complications, such as pneumonia or severe dehydration. Those with heart problems or other preexisting medical conditions can suffer even worse effects, include heart failure and, in extreme cases, death.
Symptoms of the Cold vs. the Flu Side by Side
Looking at the symptoms of the two side by side, you’ll notice how similar they are in many ways. The major difference is that the flu symptoms are typically much worse than the cold symptoms. For example, the cold can give you a bit of a sore throat with some itchiness and general discomfort, while the flu can make your throat feel like it’s on fire. The cold can give you a low-grade fever, maybe around 99-101 degrees, while the flu can cause your temperature to skyrocket up into dangerous degrees. If your temperature goes above 103 F (39.4 C), head to the emergency room.
If your cold symptoms are severe or you think you may have the flu, it’s important to follow up with your doctor. There is no cure for the common cold, but you can treat the symptoms. Your doctor may recommend pain relievers, decongestants, and cough medicine. With the flu, if you catch it early enough, antiviral medications targeted at the flu viruses may help, but sometimes the side effects are worse than the flu itself. Whether it’s a cold or the flu, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest until you’re feeling better.