How to Tell If You Have a Cold or the Flu 

 December 23, 2015

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A woman with the common cold. Winter is the time of year when many people catch a cold or the flu. The symptoms can be similar in some cases. Here is a guide to help you figure out which you have so you can seek the appropriate treatment.

A cold usually begins with a sore throat that goes away after one or two days. That is followed by a runny nose, congestion, and cough by the fourth and fifth days. The nose will have watery secretions for the first few days that will become thicker and darker later. A slight fever is possible, but it is uncommon in adults. Children are more likely to experience a fever when they have a cold.

A cold usually lasts about a week. You are contagious for the first three days that you have a cold. If your symptoms do not improve after a week, you could have a bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics. You might also have allergies or sinusitis.

The flu usually has more severe symptoms than a cold that come on quickly. The flu can cause a sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches, congestion, and cough. Swine flu can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

Symptoms of the flu gradually improve over two to five days, but you might feel run down for a week. The flu often leads to pneumonia, especially in young or elderly people or those with lung or heart problems. If you experience shortness of breath, contact your doctor. Pneumonia can also cause a fever that goes away and comes back a day or two later.

One way to figure out if you have a cold or the flu is to take your temperature. A cold rarely causes a fever over 101 degrees. If you have the flu, you will probably also have body and muscle aches and feel miserable. A headache is more common with the flu than a cold. You are more likely to feel fatigue or exhaustion with the flu. A stuffy nose, sneezing, and sore throat are more commonly signs of a cold.

If you have a cold, take decongestant and pain reliever/fever reducer medicine. If you have the flu, you can take these medications and possibly antiviral medication if it is prescribed by your doctor.

Call your doctor if you have painful swallowing or a persistent fever, cough, congestion, or headache. You may need emergency treatment if you experience severe chest pain or headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, or persistent vomiting. Signs of an emergency in a child include difficulty breathing, bluish skin color, not drinking adequate fluids, lethargy, extreme irritability, symptoms that start to improve and suddenly worsen, and fever accompanied by a rash.

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