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How can I tell if I have the flu or a cold?

February 1, 2016

Ah yes, we’ve all been there – you wake up in the morning not feeling well. Your nose is congested, you feel as though you’re about to cough up a lung, and the pain in your forehead is feels like the equivalent of 100 hammers pounding away. To put it bluntly, you feel like crap. But is it the flu or the common cold? Well, have no fear, for Cheryl the pharmacist is here!

Now, the flu and the cold are similar in that they are both viral respiratory infections that spread from person to person through airborne droplets. However, there are also many differences between the two. The peak times for colds are the start of the school year in the fall, midwinter and early spring. The flu is more predominant in the middle of winter and early spring. That explains why flu shots are given in the fall. (By the way there is no vaccination for the common cold).

While cold symptoms may gradually occur, the flu will hit you like a ton of bricks. Flu symptoms include a very high fever (38◦ to 41◦ C), headache, aches and pains, fatigue or weakness and extreme exhaustion; especially at the start. The fatigue can actually last two to three weeks. In comparison, the cold may start with a sore throat and progress to nasal symptoms and a cough.

One more difference worth noting is that the cold can last for up to two weeks although symptoms usually resolve more quickly. Generally speaking, the symptoms of a cold are much milder than the flu. The flu, unfortunately, can progress to more serious conditions such as pneumonia which can result in hospitalization or even death in high risk populations. The good news is the vast majority of people will recover from the flu.