Coughing, fever, runny nose—are you suffering from a flu or just a common cold? How can you know for sure? “People mix them up quite a lot,” says family physician Jonathan Kerr, MD. Both illnesses make you feel miserable, and many of the symptoms can overlap. But colds and flus aren’t created equal, and the best ways to treat them may be different, too. Here’s what you need to know when you’re wondering which ailment has you laying low.
Cold and Flu: The Similarities
Influenza and the common cold are both caused by a virus, and both can take up to a week or two to leave your system. Both are easily spread from person to person. They can also cause similar symptoms, such as nasal congestion, coughing, headache, sore throat and a fever.
Cold and Flu: The Differences
Ask a doctor about the biggest difference between a cold and a flu, and they’ll tell you it’s how well you function while you’re sick. Can you mostly go about your business, or are you completely out of action? “Most people with a cold still go to work and look after their kids,” says Kerr. “When you have the flu, you’re not doing anything. You’re getting Grandma to look after the kids because you’re down for the count.”
A flu makes you ache all over and causes crushing fatigue. Your fever is higher than the mildly elevated temperature associated with a cold, and it comes with chills and sweats. And you may experience vomiting or diarrhea with a flu. “The true flu knocks you right on your back,” says Kerr. “You’re in bed for days and can’t move. Everything hurts.”
Flu also tends to hit you fast, like a ton of bricks, while a cold will come on more slowly. Another clue is the season when it strikes; flu is more common in winter and early spring. If you get sick at other times of the year, such as during the summer, it’s more likely you’re grappling with a cold.
Plus, a flu tends to spread quickly through an entire community at once, so you’ll hear stories about friends and neighbors all getting sick. Your doctor’s office or closest hospital will also be able to tell you if there’s been a local outbreak.
Caught a Bug? Here’s How to Treat It
Whether you’re flattened by flu or struggling with a cold, your best approach is to deal with the symptoms. Get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. That’s especially important if you have a flu, which may make you lose your appetite or make it hard to keep food down. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can ease muscle aches, and cold medications may help dry up a runny nose. Wash your hands frequently to avoid infecting others.
Since both sicknesses are caused by viruses, antibiotics won’t help—they only fight bacteria. But Tamiflu, a medication prescribed by your doctor, may reduce the severity of a flu and will shorten the duration by about a day. You should start taking Tamiflu within the first 48 hours of your symptoms.
If you do have a flu, expect to be completely incapacitated for a few days. If you have a cold, on the other hand, you may be tempted to tough it out at the office. Bad idea—you’ll only spread your sickness, and your colleagues might not appreciate it.
As for the tried-and-true chicken soup remedy, there just might be something to it—for both illnesses. Chicken soup has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and it also temporarily eases nasal congestion. “Chicken soup’s great because it gives you fluid and salt,” adds Kerr. “But it’s also great because someone’s taking care of you.”