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How to Recognize the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu (Influenza)
Being sick is never fun. Staying in bed with a stick under your tongue is one of the least fun ways to spend your day. But if you know how to tell the difference between a cold and the flu, you can treat the condition effectively.
Assessing Your Symptoms
Take your temperature.A fever is one of the most common symptoms of the flu, and rarely occurs with the common cold.Measure your temperature using a home thermometer, or visit a doctor to have your temperature taken there. The average healthy body temperature is 98.6ºF (37ºC) when measured orally (by mouth), but it's normal for this to vary by 1ºF (0.6ºC) in either direction. The temperature reading that is considered a fever depends on your age and which type of thermometer you use:
- Mouth: 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher for adults, 99.5ºF (37.5ºC) for children
- Ear or Rectum (bottom): 101ºF (38.3ºC) or higher for adults, 100.4ºF (38ºC) for children
- Armpit: 99.4ºF (37.4ºC) or higher.This is a less accurate method of measurement.
Think about the severity of your symptoms.With a cold, the symptoms you experience are less severe. While you may experience things like a runny nose, sore throat, and other ailments, you will not feel completely run down. With the flu, symptoms will be more severe and you will likely struggle with simple tasks.
- During the first couple days of the flu, symptoms can include aches, chills, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, and a flushed face.
- If the flu causes a high fever (103ºF / 39.4ºC or higher), you may experience hallucinations, confusion, dehydration, irritability, or convulsions.
Identify congestion from a cold versus the flu.The main symptoms of a cold are often congestion-related, such as coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose.When you have the flu, these symptoms typically appear only after the fever has run its course, after two to four days. Nasal mucus from the flu also tends to be clear and watery, not thick.
- Remember to consider the severity as well. If symptoms of congestion are debilitating, they may be caused by a fever. They will also not be your only symptoms. You will notice other things, such as exhaustion and general aches and pains, if you have a fever.
Take note of chest discomfort.General discomfort centered in your chest is common when you have the flu (and accompanying fever). It is less common when you have a cold, and tends to be more mild and related to coughing and sneezing.
Consider whether you feel exhausted.If you have a cold, you're generally still able to engage in daily tasks. While you may feel tired, you will be able to get out of bed, shower, run errands, and so on. With the flu, however, you will feel completely exhausted. You will feel a need to lie down during the day.
Considering Other Factors
Consider how fast symptoms started.Colds tend to come on gradually. You will start sniffling for a few days and then symptoms will become more severe. The flu, however, can rapidly cause a fever. You may go to bed feeling fine and wake up very sick.
Look at your eating habits.Have you noticed any changes in appetite? With a cold, you will still want food. Your eating habits will only change slightly, if at all. With the flu, however, you may notice you're uninterested in food altogether. You may have no desire to eat while symptoms persist.
Think about risk factors.Both the cold and the flu are contagious diseases. Think about any sick people you've been exposed to and whether they had a cold or the flu.
- Cold symptoms are most contagious during the earliest stages of infection, when the disease is less severe. If you were recently around someone who was experiencing mild sniffling or sneezing, you may have a cold.
- Flu symptoms typically appear two or three days after you were exposed to the virus, but it can take anywhere from one to seven days.
Treating a Cold
Get plenty of rest.Colds may be common, but that doesn't mean you should ignore them. If possible, rest at home for a couple days or until you feel better. If you cannot miss school or work, go to bed early so you can sleep as much as you need — potentially up to 12 hours.
Take medication to relieve symptoms.If you think you have a cold, go for an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen. You can also treat specific symptoms with remedies such as nasal sprays, decongestants, or cough syrups. Always check to make sure medications do not interfere with your existing medications and follow package instructions closely.Do not take decongestants for more than five days in a row.
- Consult a doctor before giving medicine to young children.
- Do not take aspirin if you are 18 years old or younger, due to the risk of Reye's syndrome.
Stay hydrated.Drinking plenty of fluids will help you recover faster. If you have sinus pain or a dry nose, it may also help to run a humidifier or inhale steam.
See a doctor for new or worsening symptoms.Most colds go away after three or four restful days.If you feel worse after that time, or if you develop any new symptoms, see a doctor. Some more serious problems are easily mistaken for a cold, so don't hesitate to get a checkup.
- Seek medical attention right away if you feel short of breath, cough up blood or colored mucus (including yellow), or if deep breaths cause chest pain.
- Call a doctor if your sore throat lasts more than a week, or if it is accompanied by other throat symptoms such as pain while swallowing, swollen glands, white patches, or rash.
- Take your temperature regularly. If you have a fever, you may have the flu after all. If your symptoms don't match the flu or a cold, see a doctor immediately.
Get medical help if you have certain health conditions.If you have certain health conditions, any symptoms of a cold should be evaluated. Even if you don't think you have a fever, see a doctor if you have any of the following conditions:
- Kidney or liver disease
- Lowered immunity
- A history of strokes or transient ischaemic attacks
Treating the Flu
Rest.Most people with mild flu symptoms start to feel better after three or four days of bed rest, and recover completely within a week or two. Take it easy and cancel your plans — your health and the health of those around you are more important.
Stay hydrated and avoid cigarettes and alcohol.Drinking plenty of liquids is a basic but important treatment. Cut out smoking and alcohol while you still have symptoms.
Fight a low fever with OTC medication.If you are an adult and have a fever no higher than 103ºF (39.4ºC) when measured by mouth, you can treat it at home.Take an over-the-counter fever reducer such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to lower this. You do not need to eliminate the fever entirely; even a small drop in temperature can make you feel better.
- Anyone aged 18 or younger should avoid aspirin, which can cause a rare but potentially fatal illness called Reye's syndrome. The chance is higher during a viral infection like the flu.
Take cold medication for other symptoms.If you have congestion or a sore throat, you can take over the counter cold medication to make yourself feel better.These just treat the symptoms, not the underlying cause, so it will work even when you have the flu.
- Always check the active ingredients before you take multiple medications. Do not take two drugs that list the same active ingredient, such as acetaminophen, as a double dose may be dangerous. Many over the counter cold treatments combine multiple drugs and do not necessarily list them on the front of the container.
Identify a dangerous fever based on age.A high fever may require prescription anti-viral medications to prevent more serious problems such as pneumonia.The "danger point" depends on your age:
- Infants under 3 months: call a doctor immediately for a temperature of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher.
- Children 3 months to 5 years: call a doctor immediately for a temperature of 102ºF (38.9ºC).
- Adults and children age 5 or older: if an oral temperature of 104ºF (40ºC) lasts for more than 4 hours, call a doctor.
- Adults 65 and older: this group is at higher risk of serious complications from the flu, and in some cases may not have a high temperature despite a bad infection.When in doubt, call a doctor.
Watch for warning signs.Seek medical attention right away if you experience any of the following:
- Any fever lasting more than three days.
- Inability to drink fluids without vomiting.
- Meningitis symptoms such as sensitivity to bright light, a stiff neck, or a severe headache.
- Any unusual symptoms, especially major mood changes, seizures, skin rash, or severe throat swelling.
- Any symptoms that don't start to improve within 3 to 5 days.
See a doctor early if you are at risk of complications.The flu is more likely to cause pneumonia, bronchitis, and other complications in certain groups of people. Taking prescription anti-viral medication within 48 hours of symptoms appearing lowers this risk, and speeds up recovery.The following people should always see a doctor as soon as they develop flu symptoms:
- Anyone with a chronic or long-term medical problem, including asthma, other lung diseases, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, or a blood disorder.
- Anyone with a history of strokes or transient ischaemic attacks.
- Anyone with a weakened immune system, for instance due to AIDS or chemotherapy.
- Women more than 3 months pregnant.
- Anyone living in a long-term care facility.
- Children under 2 and adults over 65.
QuestionI keep shivering, even indoors, I have been very light sensitive today and have had a few headaches, but my parents wont believe me. What do I do as I don't know if it's the flu or not?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt sounds as though you may have a fever so you should go check your temperature. If it is too high, go show your parents and they should have you stay home and rest.Thanks!
QuestionWhat does it mean when my nose really hurts and burns?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt's probably caused by blowing your nose a lot, which most likely means you either have a cold or seasonal allergies.Thanks!
QuestionI get cold and shiver, but I feel warm not cold. Do I have a cold or the flu?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt sounds like you have a fever, which is more common with flu than a cold. Take your temperature, and if you have a very high fever or you have a fever for more than a day, consult your doctor.Thanks!
QuestionAre you sure you won't ever have loss of appetite with a cold?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerThere are no hard and fast rules; symptoms will vary by the person. It's possible to experience a loss of appetite with a cold.Thanks!
QuestionShould I blow my nose when I have the flu?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerYes, it's fine to blow your nose when you have the flu. If your mucus is bloody or green, consult your doctor.Thanks!
QuestionIf I have an upset stomach and pain in my joints and hips, is it the flu?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt is most likely the flu, as it tends to cause stomach problems and general aches and pains that can occur anywhere on the body.Thanks!
QuestionI'm on the couch and very dizzy. I can't move around. What should I do?Princess RapidfireCommunity AnswerIf you've been throwing up, keep a trash can with a bag in it nearby. Lay slightly elevated, it makes it easier to breath. Do not get up a lot. The blood rushing around can add to any headache/pain you might have. Ask a friend or family member to give you some water, and do some thing like watch T.V because it can distract you from the pain. Do not go on a your phone or portable devices, bending your neck can make your head feel worse.Thanks!
I can't get flu shots what do I do because I am allergic to something that is in the shot?
If you’re feeling sick and you’re not sure if it’s a cold or the flu, take your temperature with a thermometer. If it’s higher than 100.4°F for adults or 99.5°F in children, you have a fever, which is very common with the flu and uncommon for a cold. Other symptoms of the flu include a sudden onset of aches, chills, dizziness, and exhaustion. With a cold, your symptoms will come on more slowly. They’ll also be less severe, and may include a runny nose, cough, and thick mucus.
- Whether you have a cold or fever, try to prevent your illness from spreading to others. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing, cough and sneeze into tissues, and throw tissues away promptly. If you are sick with a virus like the flu, stay home from work or school until it passes.
- It's a good idea to get a flu shot each year to reduce your chances of getting the flu.
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