Is it a Cold or the Flu?


By Megan J. DiGiorgio, MSN, RN, CIC
Clinical Specialist, GOJO Industries

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have warned that flu season in the U.S. has begun, and about half the country is experiencing high levels of flu activity. Flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths have also increased. Even more bad news is that flu activity is expected to continue for several weeks.

To complicate matters, common cold viruses widely circulate during flu season, with the average adult getting two to four colds per year, mostly between September and May. Because these two types of viral respiratory illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish between them based on symptoms alone.

In general, the flu is more severe than the common cold. Colds typically do not result in serious complications, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations. In some cases, diagnostic testing may need to be done in order determine whether a person has a cold or the flu. So how can you tell if it is the cold or flu?

Here are some general differences.

Symptoms of the Flu:

Fever - Usual; high (100⁰F to 102⁰F, occasionally higher, especially in young children); lasts 3-4 days
Headache - Common
General aches and pains - Usual; often severe
Fatigue, weakness - Usual; can last up to 2 to 3 weeks
Extreme exhaustion - Usual; at the beginning of illness
Stuffy nose - Sometimes
Sneezing - Sometimes
Sore throat - Sometimes
Chest discomfort, cough - Common; can become severe

Symptoms of a Cold:

Fever - Rare
Headache - Rare
General aches and pains - Slight
Fatigue, weakness - Sometimes
Extreme exhaustion - Never
Stuffy nose - Common
Sneezing - Usual
Sore throat - Common
Chest discomfort, cough - Mild to moderate; hacking cough


Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Is it a cold or the flu? Accessed December 1, 2014        

Regardless of whether the culprit is a cold or the flu, there are some general infection prevention and control principles that every person should follow in order to stay healthy during cold and flu season.
1. Get your flu vaccine. This is the most important measure you can take. Remember, you can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine because it’s either made with inactivated virus, no virus at all, or a weakened virus that cannot cause illness.
2. If you do get the flu, your doctor may prescribe flu antiviral drugs. These drugs can make flu illness milder and shorten the time you are sick.  
3. Perform hand hygiene often. Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub frequently. 
4. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs from your hands can enter your body through your eyes, nose and mouth.
5. Cover your cough or sneeze. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or into a tissue and perform hand hygiene immediately after.
6. Stay home if you are sick, and limit contact with others as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medications).
7. Clean and disinfect surfaces often. This can help reduce the amount of germs present that can make you sick. 

For more information about the flu and the most up-to-date information about this year’s flu season, visit the CDC’s flu web page.