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Flu vs. colds: What you need to know

Julie Kraut is a freelance writer and the author of Slept Away and Hot Mess. Visit JulieKraut.com for more.




Is there a difference?

Paired like peanut butter and jelly, Batman and Robin, and Oprah and Gayle, the cold and the flu are their own dynamic duo. Medicine boxes promise relief from both cold and flu symptoms, and the illnesses are used interchangeably in everyday conversation -- so you have to wonder: What's the difference between the two, and does it even really matter?

Woman with Flu

The answer to both questions is a definite yes. While a cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses caused by viruses and with similar symptoms, the two are ultimately quite different -- -- and proper identification and treatment are vital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only special tests can diagnose the flu definitively; however, a few telltale indications can help you self -- diagnose before seeking medical attention.

  • Intensity -- In general, a cold is far milder than the flu. Gauge your symptoms, especially fatigue and joint pain, for severity as you try to identify your ailment. Intensity also applies to the duration of the symptoms. A cold lasts for up to 10 days, while symptoms from the flu can continue for weeks.
  • Nose -- A cold is distinct from the flu in that it predominantly affects the head, specifically the nose, while the symptoms of the flu involve the entire body. The CDC lists a runny or stuffed nose as a key indicator of a cold over the flu.
  • Tummy -- While stomach and digestive issues are not always present with the seasonal flu, any tummy troubles, such as vomiting, diarrhea or aching, point to the flu. This is more common in children or those over 65.
  • Timing -- While colds can be contracted year 'round, the flu is typically limited to October through May, with February being the month of highest incidence. This is when you should be most vigilant of and responsive to any flulike symptoms.
  • Treatment -- A cold can usually be treated with over-the-counter medication and chicken soup. The flu, however, requires medical attention to avoid complications such as bacterial infections or pneumonia, says Flu.gov, a government site dedicated to disseminating flu information.
  • Prevention -- The largest difference between these diseases is prevention. While proper hand washing, good hygiene and cleaning of high-traffic surfaces can mitigate the risk of both illnesses, only the flu has an available vaccine. The CDC recommends vaccination as the best and most effective means of protection from the flu virus.

A cold and the flu are undeniably different beasts, but they both can stop you in your tracks and leave you feeling icky for days. With careful preventive measures (and a bit of luck), you might be able to avoid these illnesses and won't need to distinguish between the two.

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