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Is it a Cold or the Flu?

You’re sick and you figure it’s probably just a cold so you don’t need to go see your doctor, right? Well, the flu and the common cold are both caused by viruses and they have similar symptoms. The flu is usually more severe and can cause death in certain vulnerable populations like the immunocompromised, elderly and young children.

Common Cold vs. Flu – What’s the Difference?

Influenza (flu) and the common  cold are both viral infections, but they are caused by different viruses. While they have symptoms that can overlap, the flu tends to have symptoms that are sudden onset and more severe.

Typical flu-like symptoms include:

  • Fever/chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting/Diarrhea *(more common in children)

Common Cold Symptoms

Unlike the flu, there is usually no fever associated with a cold. Cold-like symptoms include:

  • Cough (can occur with/without phlegm)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny/stuffy nose/congestion
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Watery/itchy/red eyes
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes


Treatment for a Cold vs Flu

There is no test for the common cold while the flu can be diagnosed by a simple nasal swab. If detected via nasal swab, within 48 hours of symptom onset, treatment for the flu includes:

  • Supportive treatment with fluids
  • Anti-viral medication (ex: Tamiflu)
  • Rest
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Cough suppressants
  • Etc.

When should I go to the emergency room for the flu?

You should head to the emergency room if you experience any of the following while you have the flu:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest/abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe vomiting
  • High fevers
  • Worsening of flu symptoms

Children should be brought to the emergency room if you notice:

  • Irritability
  • Inability to eat/drink fluids
  • Having no tears when crying
  • Less wet diapers (signs of dehydration)

While the common cold has similar symptoms as the flu, usually the symptoms are more mild and have a more gradual onset. Both influenza and the common cold will eventually resolve on their own in healthy people. However, influenza can cause complication in people who are considered to be ‘high risk’.

Contact Your Primary Care Physician

If you have flu-like symptoms, you should contact your primary care physician. If your symptoms are more severe (like the ones listed above), it may be time to take a trip to the emergency room or urgent care located nearest to you. 

Find a WakeMed Primary Care Office Near You

WakeMed Physician Practices features board-certified primary care, internal medicine and family medicine physicians conveniently located throughout the Triangle. Find a primary care office near you, and request an appointment today.