You wake up one morning with an ache in your throat. You start coughing or sneezing, and your body feels sluggish when you try to get out of bed. You know you have caught something, but you’re not sure what. With these symptoms, you have either contracted the flu, also known as influenza, or the common cold. Sometimes, it can be difficult to spot the differences between these seasonal illnesses. Both the flu and cold affect the respiratory system in similar ways and are spread by a virus. The flu starts with one virus that mutates each year. The common cold, on the other hand, can be caused by over two-hundred known viruses.

Importance of Knowing the Difference

When we first get sick, separating these two ailments can be tricky. The symptoms of the flu and a cold overlap in many places. However, knowing the differences between both can be crucial. The common cold tends to be milder and less dangerous. Influenza, though, can lead to serious health complications if left untreated. People with the flu have contracted pneumonia, other infections, and even been hospitalized. In this light, it is paramount to know what separates the flu from a cold. So here are some of the basics.

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Symptoms of A Cold

As I mentioned, the cold is less intense than the flu. The first signs of illness begin between 1-3 days after contact with the virus. The common cold typically starts with a little itch in the throat, but most of the effects are present in the sinus and nose area. Throat soreness may last for a day or two, but other symptoms crop up as the virus runs its course. This includes a runny nose, congestion, and coughing. Mucus also goes from watery to thick after a few days. This doesn’t always mean you have a bacterial infection. In most cases, this is a sign of a sinus infection. Your nasal symptoms, congestion, and coughing can be experienced for up to four or five days. Overall, a common cold lasts for about a week. However, if symptoms persist past a week, you might need to go to a doctor and get antibiotics, as this could be a sign of a bacterial infection. In some cases, you might not have a cold at all but maybe dealing with new allergies. Either way, a visit to the doctor won’t hurt.

Symptoms of Influenza

In contrast to the common cold, the flu can last for up to three weeks. The most debilitating of the symptoms are seen in the first few days, but you can be left feeling run down and sickly for a long period of time. Influenza sets in quickly and suddenly. In other words, you’ll know when you have the flu. This differs from the common cold, which tends to sets in more gradually, and sometimes doesn’t hit you till a few days later. With the flu, you have cold symptoms like a runny nose, coughing, congestion, and sore throat, but these are also added on to other more serious issues. A high fever is a key difference to look out for when trying to decide whether you have the flu or a cold. Fevers are rare when you have a cold. With the flu though, they are common. If your forehead feels warm, the best thing to do is use a thermometer to gauge your body temperature. Anything above one hundred and one degrees Fahrenheit is indicative of the flu. If you are still unsure, extreme fatigue is another marker of influenza. With a cold, you usually only feel slightly tired, not completely run down. In addition, also be on the lookout for diarrhea, vomiting, body aches, and headaches. These symptoms aren’t common in a cold.

The Flu and Health Complications

With a cold, you might feel sniffy and a little tired. You likely going to need to go out and buy a couple of tissue boxes and soup cans. Overall though, it’s a pretty mild illness that can be treated easily. With the flu, you can’t treat your symptoms as lightly. You could end up in a much worse situation if you don’t take care of yourself. In particular, diarrhea and vomiting are symptoms to keep track of. They not only differentiate the flu from the common cold, but they can also lead to major fluid loss and a trip to the hospital. You want to keep yourself hydrated to avoid the worst possible outcomes. Another issue to look out for with the flu is pneumonia. While a cold tends to affect the nose and throat, the flu can travel deep into the lungs and cause major infections. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, the elderly, and children are at risk for developing pneumonia along with the flu. Take decongestants, use humidifiers, and take in plenty of nutrition and rest to minimize the risk of further infection.

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How to Prevent Catching The Flu or a Cold

Ideally, you would want to stop both of these ailments in their tracks before they ever reach your body. The best preventative for any illness is to wash your hands. Place your hands under warm water for at least thirty seconds, and scrub with soap well. Also, try to keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth during the day. These areas are most susceptible to infection. For influenza, it’s best to get vaccinated before the flu season starts. The peak infection season is around November. Keep in mind that flu mutates every year. So you have to keep getting a shot each year. Some people skip out on the vaccine thinking it won’t do any good. This mentality does more harm than good. While the flu shot is not a hundred percent guarantee against catching the illness, it is your best defense against the flu, and it can even lessen the symptoms if you do end up catching it. In the end, it’s better to be safe than sorry. While a mild cold is something we can easily get over, the flu takes a bigger toll on the body.

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