The terms "cold" and "flu" describe illnesses that are caused by many different viruses. However, it is helpful to be able to recognize which type of illness you have so that you will know what to expect and be able to make decisions about whether you need to seek medical care.
Both colds and flus can result in a runny nose, stuffy head, sore throat and fatigue. But there are some readily identifiable ways the illnesses differ. Generally speaking, the common cold has milder symptoms and a quicker recovery period with a low risk of complications. In contrast, the flu tends to make people feel worse, lasts longer and can have life-threatening complications such as pneumonia. Colds tend to peak in intensity on the third day of illness, with recovery in five to seven days. Flu symptoms, conversely, may start with greater intensity and last much longer.
One of the most helpful clues in telling the difference is that if you have a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you probably do not have a cold. The presence of a fever does not always mean that you have the flu, but it does make it very unlikely that you have a cold.
The main exception to this rule is that children may run fevers when they have a common cold. It is also important to note that while fever is a very common symptom of the flu, it doesn't happen to everyone. The elderly and those with compromised immune systems in particular may not have a fever when they have the flu.
Unlike the common cold, the flu tends to cause full-body symptoms such as chills and muscle aches. The flu also may cause digestive symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In contrast, symptoms of the common cold are usually restricted to the head and chest.
Another difference between colds and flus is the type of cough that develops. The common cold tends to cause a wet cough, which may be accompanied by spitting up phlegm. The flu cough tends to be dry, with little or no mucus production.
If you are a healthy teen or adult with a cold or flu, home treatments such as resting and drinking plenty of fluids are probably all you need to make a full recovery. Children younger than two years old, the elderly and adults with chronic health conditions are especially at risk for developing complications from the flu and may require more care. The following are signs that indicate a sick person needs prompt medical attention:
- Difficulty breathing or chest pain
- Blue or purplish discoloration of the lips
- Vomiting with the inability to hold down liquids
- Signs of dehydration: feeling dizzy when standing, being unable to urinate and for infants, crying without shedding tears
- Seizures or uncontrolled convulsions
- Becoming confused or disoriented
There are many things to consider in caring for yourself or family members who have the flu. More information on this topic is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
— Miranda Marti, ND, LAc, naturopathic physician and resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic of Bastyr University. For more information, call (206) 834-4100 to schedule an appointment.