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Is It a Cold or Flu? 4 Helpful Things to Know

When it’s cold and flu season, it’s good to review the difference between a cold and influenza. Why should you know? It allows you to treat the illness the best way.

A key difference between cold and flu is that there is no vaccine for the common cold. There is, however, a vaccine to help prevent flu. It’s a good idea to have your whole family get the vaccine. Fall is the best time of year to get it. Ask your health care professional about getting the flu vaccine. 

If you have the flu, visiting your health care provider within 48 hours can be helpful. Your provider may prescribe an anti-viral medication. Getting the medication within two days of onset can reduce flu symptoms. It can also reduce the risk of complications.

With the flu, symptoms usually start around one to four days after infection. The flu usually lasts one to two weeks. The worst of the symptoms generally go away after two or three days. If the victim is very young, elderly or otherwise in poor health, complications of flu can be more severe. Complications from both a cold or flu can include pneumonia, bronchitis or sinusitis. Influenza complications can even be life threatening.

If you have a cold, you’ll likely feel better within a week. If you’re ill beyond that, see your health care provider to rule out a sinus infection, allergy or another medical problem.

Next, let’s take a look at cold and flu onset and symptoms.

These aren’t hard and fast differences, but comparing symptoms can be helpful. For a definite diagnosis, you’ll want to see your health care provider.

What’s the Treatment for a Cold?

In most cases home care is enough for a cold.

  • Rest. A regular sleep pattern boosts your immune system.
  • Drink fluids. Stay away from caffeinated and alcohol drinks.
  • Try some chicken soup! A study showed the soup may help with upper respiratory infections.
  • Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines may help ease symptoms. These products are not recommended for children under age 4 and should only be used in children age 4-6 years if your doctor approves. After age 6 the package directions can be followed, but be careful to give the correct dose. Gargling with salt water can help reduce sore throat discomfort.
  • Antibiotics should not be used for a cold.

Some people treat a cold with vitamin C, zinc supplement or Echinacea. Check with your health care provider before trying herbs or supplements.

As noted, most cold symptoms should go away within a week.

What’s the Treatment for Flu?

In most cases home care is sufficient for flu. Contact a health care provider if the ill person is very young, elderly, in poor health or pregnant.

You should stay home and avoid contact with others, except to see your health care provider if needed.

  • Rest. Sleep boosts your immunity.
  • Drink fluids. Stay away from caffeinated and alcohol drinks.
  • Try some chicken soup.
  • A vaporizer or humidifier can help ease nasal congestion and sore throat pain. Make sure the device is clean.
  • Try a warm compress on your forehead and nose to relieve a headache or sinus pain.
  • Gargling with salt water can help reduce sore throat discomfort.

How Can You Avoid Viruses Like Cold and Flu?

Reduce your chances of coming down with a cold or flu with these everyday lifestyle choices:

  • Exercise regularly. Activities such as aerobics and walking boost the immune system.
  • Keep a regular and adequate sleep schedule.
  • Include dark green foods in your diet. Foods like spinach have lots of vitamin A and C. Salmon is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. They help fight inflammation. Low-fat yogurt can also help boost your immune system.

If you’re around someone who has a cold or flu, wash your hands regularly. Keep your fingers out of your eyes, nose and mouth. If you touch a contaminated surface (such as a faucet or doorknob), your hands can carry the virus to your system.

People with a cold are most contagious for the first two or three days. A cold is normally not contagious after the first week.

People with the flu will be contagious about 24 to 72 hours after contracting the flu virus. They can remain contagious for up to five days after the symptoms start. Children and those with compromised immune systems can be contagious for up to two weeks.

In most cases, those who catch a cold or get the flu will usually be back to normal in a couple weeks. You’ll notice getting rest tops the list of treatments for both types of viruses. Ask your health care provider if you have questions about cold or flu. 

Meet the Author

Jackie Kuzminski, MD, is a pediatrician at Aurora Children's Health in Hales Corners, WI. 

Read more posts from this author

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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