Cold or Flu? Learn the Symptoms

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
January 12, 2018
cold or flu

You’re sneezing, coughing and long for your bed. Is it a cold, which will probably clear up in a couple of days? Or is it the flu, which will sideline you for weeks?

As many as 20 percent of Americans catch the flu annually, leading to about 200,000 hospitalizations and between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How to tell if you're getting the flu:

Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory virus with many different strains. When you hear people complain about a stomach flu, it’s really viral gastroenteritis. But referring to viral gastroenteritis as a stomach flu is a nothing more than a difference without a distinction.

However, referring to the flu as a cold can be problematic as the viruses are treated differently. Let’s start by comparing symptoms. Both colds and the flu have telltale symptoms.




Onset of symptoms

Gradual; onset usually takes days.

Quick; onset usually takes hours.

Sneezing, runny nose




Yes, generally with mucus

Yes, generally without mucus

Sore throat



Fever, chills, sweats

Generally no; it’s rare for adults





Body aches



Nausea, stomach upset



Respiratory congestion

Mild to moderate

Moderate to severe



Moderate to severe

Once you recognize which type of virus you’re dealing with, you can begin getting appropriate care. For instance, if you’re suffering with a cold:

  • Rest;
  • Drink plenty of fluids such as water, broth, tea and juice;
  • Gargle with salt water to help ease sore throats;
  • Use over-the-counter nasal sprays to ease nasal congestion;
  • Eat high nutrient foods like vegetables, fruits, lean protein and whole grains;
  • Stop smoking; it can cause respiratory complications and slow down your recovery.

“If you think you have the flu, call your doctor,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. ”They may prescribe an antiviral medication like Tamiflu or Relenza for you. And of course, rest, drink fluids and stop smoking.”

Colds and influenza are viruses, so antibiotics won’t do much for you. If you have a chronic condition such as asthma, you have a greater risk of developing a secondary bacterial infection, which will require antibiotics.

Antihistamines and pain relievers are your best bets for alleviating symptoms, but they won’t hasten the actual recovery process. And if you’re using decongestant sprays, remember that prolonged use can cause rebound symptoms.

Unfortunately, the flu can cause complications even with proper treatment. The most common include pneumonia; sinus and ear infections; exacerbation of heart conditions, respiratory diseases and diabetes; and inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) and its sac-like tissue lining (pericarditis), according to WebMD.

“A strong immune system and hand-washing can help you prevent colds but the best way to prevent the flu is with a flu shot,” Kaminetsky says.

Flu shots can lower your risk of contracting influenza by 40 to 60 percent, according to the CDC. If you skip flu shots because you’re concerned they’ll make you sick, read The Truth Behind 3 Common Flu Shot Misconceptions »

For more information on influenza, talk to your primary care physician. Looking for a primary care physician? Physicians in MDVIP-affiliated practices can customize a wellness plan for you. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »

Similar Posts
Flu Vaccine in a Patch? Study Suggests It Works as Well as an Injection / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / August 18, 2017
The Truth Behind 3 Common Flu Shot Misconceptions / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / January 12, 2018

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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