Is it a cold, or the flu?

Posted at 12:28 PM, Sep 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-26 09:48:44-04

Along with fall's cool temperatures, changing leaves and pumpkin patches comes another season: flu season.

The peak time for flu viruses hitting people is between late November and March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cold season strikes around the same time, as well, so it can be confusing to know if those sneezes and coughs are symptoms of cold or flu.

Colds often start with a sore throat, followed a few days later with a runny nose and nasal congestion, WebMD notes. The symptoms can last a week.



The flu usually includes many of those same symptoms but adds fever, which is possible with colds in adults but unlikely, and body aches and headaches, according to WebMD. Fatigue is common and “can last for weeks,” according to “The Doctors” in a 2014 USA Weekend article.

What also distinguishes the flu is it “comes on faster and lasts longer,” “The Doctors” note. It’s “more intense” than the cold.

A cold is more likely to cause a runny or stuffy nose than the flu. However, the CDC says “it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between (the cold and the flu) based on symptoms alone.”

The flu can potentially lead to complications such as pneumonia, particularly for at risk populations, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions, like chronic lung disease or asthma.

To confirm the type of illness, “special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can tell if a person has the flu,” according to the CDC. Antiviral drugs, available by prescription, can treat the flu if started early and reduce the severity of symptoms and length of illness.

Antivirals are different from antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics won’t help colds or flus, which are viral infections, so taking an antibiotic not only won’t make your cold or flu go away but will disturb the natural balance of good bacteria in your body, particularly your intestines, and contribute to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, which can harm everyone.

The best way to protect against the flu is to get a flu shot, the “ingredients” of which vary year to year. Researchers monitor the most common flu strains circulating each year and include “component” vaccines against those in each season’s shot. The CDC notes a few new items for the 2016-17 flu season, including that injectable shots are recommended this year, and there are changes in recommendations for people who have egg allergies.

The best way to prepare for cold and flu season is getting a flu shot and knowing the symptoms of both illnesses, so you can recover from both.