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Cold or flu?

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Cold or flu?

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them.

Influenza (also known as the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense.

Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations.


Most people who get influenza will recover in several days to less than two weeks, but some people may develop serious complications as a result of the flu. Young children, adults aged 65 years and older, pregnant women and people with certain chronic medical conditions are among those at high risk of serious flu complications, possibly requiring hospitalization and sometimes resulting in death. For example, people with chronic lung disease are at higher risk of developing severe pneumonia.

Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu, while pneumonia is a serious complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of the flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by the flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by the flu.

Telling the difference

Because colds and the flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu.

What are the symptoms of the flu versus the symptoms of a cold?

Flu can include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults. It's important to note that not everyone with the flu will have a fever.

Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems.


Submitted by Catrina Capestro, MHA, RN
Director of Nursing, Alpine Home Health Agency, Inc.

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