How to Tell the Difference and What to Do for Both

Five minute read

Flu symptoms are the very definition of misery. A severe cold may make you feel awful, but the flu is like a near-death experience. Still, sometimes it’s hard to know which one has taken you out of the game. Let’s find out: here are the major differences between the flu and a cold, as well as symptoms, treatment, medication and prevention.

The Fast and Furious Flu

You go to bed a little early after a long day. You’re a bit more tired than usual, sure, but it was a stressful day at work. You’re looking forward to getting some shut-eye and waking up ready and raring to go tomorrow.

But when you do wake up the next day, you feel like you’ve descended into Dante’s Ninth Circle. You experience all the early flu symptoms: head is splitting, your cough won’t quit, you’re drenched in sweat and your body feels like you’ve gone a few boxing rounds with the world heavy weight champion. You shiver and shake so hard that the cat jumps off the bed in a fit of pique. You touch your own forehead then yank your hand away. The singed hairs on the back of your hand are evidence—you’ve got a fever, likely a pretty high one.

When the flu hits you it doesn’t waste time. Within one to four days of your initial exposure (incubation period), it knocks you down, then sticks around for a week or two, just long enough to use up most of your paid time off from work. The flu’s relentless, too, spreading from person to person with scary ease—at least for the months between October and March, also known as flu season. After that, it settles into an uneasy retreat through the summer (although some years, the flu’s been known to be active through May).

The Sly and Shifty Cold

Common colds, by contrast, can sneak up on you so surreptitiously that you may spend the initial phase convinced that the only reason you’ve been sniffling so much is because, as you’ve told your wife countless times, you really are allergic to the cat.

Just like the flu, common cold symptoms can include a cough, body aches (although of a milder variety), stuffy or runny nose and a sore throat. Unlike the flu, you don’t suffer through chills or sweats and you rarely have a fever. That said, colds still sap you of energy and can generally make your life miserable for about seven to 10 days.

To add insult to injury, the flu can sometimes cause vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. If you have only vomiting and diarrhea without the other flu symptoms, you probably have gastroenteritis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the stomach and intestines. People often call this the “stomach flu,” but it’s not the same as seasonal flu.

Common colds can make your friends and family miserable too: you’re most contagious in the first two to four days after you were exposed to the cold virus—the same days you haven’t yet realized you’re sick. Although colds can spread when someone who is sick (you, in this scenario) sneezes or coughs, showering others with microscopic particles of the virus, it is more commonly passed on when that person shakes your hand or touches the doorknob right before you and then you rub your eye or touch your face.

Will Antibiotics Help Treat the Flu or a Cold?

One of the bummers about both flus and colds is that since they are caused by viruses, not bacteria, antibiotics do nothing to speed recovery, provide symptom relief, or make you any less contagious.

Once you get the flu, there are prescription anti-viral drugs that can cut its duration and severity including Tamiflu, Relenza and Xofluza. Call your doctor as soon as flu symptoms begin since these drugs don’t do much if they aren’t started within the first 48 hours of symptoms. They also don’t come without side-effects —including, for some, headache, runny nose and cough. Wait—aren’t those the same symptoms as the flu?! On a more serious note, talk to your doctor to see if antivirals are right for you.

There’s no similar prescription for the common cold, though. There are non-prescription medications you can pick up (or better yet, have someone pick up for you) that will help reduce your symptoms. If you have nasal congestion, a decongestant will likely help. An antihistamine could work if you have a runny nose, watery eyes or postnasal drip, but it may make you sleepier.

Keep in mind that most OTC (over the counter) medications have side effects or could interact poorly with ones you’re already taking. Don’t go it alone: talk to the pharmacist to make sure that you’re getting the right over-the-counter medication for you.

Flush Out the Flu, Crush the Cold

If you do end up suffering through a bout of the flu or a severe cold, there are treatments you can do at home to make your life easier:

  • Rest: The demands we put on ourselves in every aspect of our lives preclude the idea that our bodies need time to heal, making this easier said than done. But do your best to take it easy; at least go to bed a little early. You’ll be back in the game sooner if you rest.
  • Stay hydrated: Consume as much water, fruit juice, herbal tea with honey, drinks with electrolytes like Gatorade or any other non-carbonated, non-caffeinated drinks as you can. If your throat is sore, just take small sips.
  • Soothe a sore throat: When you have a sore throat, you don’t want to swallow anything, even small sips of water. it just hurts too much. Get your throat in sipping shape by gargling with a warm salt-water solution: one half-teaspoon of salt dissolved into an eight-ounce glass of water. Take a mouthful and gargle for at least 30 to 60 seconds. Be sure not to swallow, though. Repeat until entire glass is empty.
  • Humidify: You don’t have to rush out to buy a humidifier (you’re not well enough to go out anyway). Instead, turn on the shower and sit in the bathroom for a few minutes, inhaling the steam. The steam will help ease your sore throat and clear up your sinuses.
  • Make a Steam Fort: When you were a kid, a blanket draped over a couple of pieces of furniture made a perfect fort. Put that inner kid to work in a different way by making a “steam fort.” Bring a pot of water to a boil, add a few drops of eucalyptus oil, drape a towel over your head and lean over the pot. Breathe deeply for 30 seconds to help shake loose the phlegm.

How Can I Avoid Getting Sick?

The flu or a severe cold can set you back for days if not weeks. Your best hope is to avoid them altogether if you can. Here’s a few stay-well tips, courtesy of the CDC:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. If soap isn't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • If you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible. If you have the flu, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or for other necessities.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as germs spread this way.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throw the tissue away.
  • Disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

Best Treatment is Prevention
The best protection of all for avoiding the virus during flu season is getting a flu shot (often free of charge through your employer and/or health insurance). That said, the effectiveness of the flu shot varies because there are multiple strains of the flu going around each year, not just one strain. The flu shot is formulated to attack the strains that are deemed “most likely to occur” each year, so the benefit can vary from full prevention to significant minimization of symptoms. Although you often hear people say they “got the flu shot and still got the flu,” most of the time, they are suffering from a different virus. Your best bet is to just do it—recent studies by the CDC shows that the flu shot reduces your chance of getting the flu by 60 percent.

And as we all know, there’s no shot to prevent the common cold. But following the steps above can go a long way towards making you a least a little more comfortable while you get through it.