Flu vs. Cold. What’s the Difference?

Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious virus that usually affects the upper-and lower-respiratory systems — your breathing system. It typically comes on suddenly, and the symptoms can be severe.


Many people with the flu will get better in a few days to less than two weeks.


However, some victims can get even sicker with pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus or ear infections. Some of these issues can be life-threatening and result in death. The flu can also make chronic health problems like asthma and heart failure worse. That’s why it’s important to get your flu vaccine every year!


People will often feel some or all of these flu symptoms:


  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone with the flu will have a fever)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired
  • Some may have vomiting and diarrhea, but this happens more in children than adults


An infant can also show these flu symptoms:


  • Inability to eat
  • Trouble breathing
  • No tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal


Who Gets the Flu?

Anyone can catch the flu, even healthy people. Serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age.


Some people can get very sick because the flu can make other health problems worse. This includes people 65 years and older, pregnant women, young children and people of any age with chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.


How Is Flu Different From a Cold?

Although the flu and the common cold both have very similar symptoms, they are caused by different viruses. Since they both make your breathing system sick, it’s hard to tell the difference.


In general, people with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose, but people with the flu can feel much worse. Flu can result in serious health problems like pneumonia, other infections or hospitalizations.


How Does the Flu Spread?

People with the flu can spread it to others. It can be spread to others up to about six feet away mainly through coughing, sneezing or talking. You can also catch the flu by touching something that has the flu virus on it and then touching your own mouth or nose.


Most healthy adults can spread the virus beginning one day before they have flu symptoms and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children can spread the virus for longer than seven days. People usually start having symptom one to four days after the virus enters the body. 


This means that you might pass on the flu to others before you even know you’re sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus and not have symptoms, but they can still get others sick.



What Can You Do to Keep the Flu From Spreading?

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Avoid being around others while you’re sick. This reduces the risk that they get sick, too.
  • If you’re sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without you needing to take fever medicine).
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that might have germs on them.
  • Get a flu shot every year during flu season!


Why Is It Important to Get the Flu Shot?

The flu shot can help you avoid being sick. You’re also protecting other people like your children, friends, co-workers, the elderly and sick — so pretty much everyone! Just because you don’t get sick from the flu, that doesn’t mean you won’t get someone else sick who isn’t as healthy as you are.


Where Can I Get a Flu Shot?

You can get it from your doctor’s office, urgent care or even at your local Aurora Pharmacy.


More information:

From the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/symptoms.htm

Meet the Author

 Jenny Lee, PharmD is a Pharmacist at Aurora Health Care Ventures in Elm Grove.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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