It’s not hard to tell when you’re sick. You’re tired, your nose is runny and you feel like crap in general. But while the signs you are coming down with something are obvious, most of the time it’s not so easy to tell if you just have a common cold — or if you have a more serious case of the flu.
Here’s the deal with the two similar — yet at the same time very different — illnesses.
So which one do I have?
Sneezing, coughing, sore throat and body aches are all symptoms of both a cold and the flu, and unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast way to determine which virus you are infected with.
“There isn’t a reliable test out there to confirm whether you have the flu,” says Dr. David Farman, an emergency medicine physician at Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, Indiana. “The nasal swabs done by physicians are really only about 50 percent sensitive for picking up cases of influenza.”
So then how the heck are you supposed to know which one you have? If your symptoms don’t start getting better after about a week, it’s possible you have the flu. Severity of the symptoms is also another giveaway.
“Fever, body aches, rapid heart rate, cough, headache and the feeling that you’ve been hit by a truck are harbingers of the flu,” says Farman.
Another way to tell the difference between the two illnesses is how quickly the symptoms come on. While cold symptoms tend to creep up a little at a time, the flu tends to come on a lot quicker, according to WebMD.
The reason the common cold and the seasonal flu are hard to tell apart might be the fact that they share a lot of similarities: They’re both caused by viruses, they’re both respiratory illnesses and they — along with most other illnesses — can cause your heart to be a little faster than normal (The heart functions differently when the body is fighting an infection, according to MD Health, but if your resting heart rate ever rises above 85, see your doctor immediately).
As of March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that symptoms including fever, coughing and shortness of breath appearing within two and 14 days of exposure to someone who might’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may mean it’s time to contact your healthcare provider as more news about community spread of the virus develops.
We all know that there’s not much to be done for a cold other than wait it out, but if your symptoms are unbearable and seem to be getting worse, hit up your doctor for a prescription.
“If you have the right symptoms in the right season, and you present within 48 hours of symptom onset, a course of Tamiflu could be in order,” Farman says. “Tamiflu is an antiviral that shortens the duration of your influenza. For example, if taken properly, it can decrease your miserable week to a mere five days.”
And don’t wait. The flu is no joke and can lead to pneumonia and hospitalization. As for that nasty cold? Homeopathic remedies are your best bet.
Melinda Johnson, the director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and a clinical assistant professor for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, recommends good old-fashioned vitamin C and zinc to shorten the duration of a cold.
“But vitamin C supplements only seem to be helpful if taken before the cold symptoms start, which can be tricky to time,” Johnson writes in U.S. News. “If you know you have been exposed to the cold virus, go ahead and take a vitamin C supplement for a few days. Zinc, meanwhile, is shown to be most effective when taken at the first signs of getting a cold. Zinc lozenges can be a useful way to get some zinc and soothe a sore throat at the same time. It’s important to note that taking too much vitamin C or zinc can be counterproductive or even dangerous; for example, the use of zinc products inside the nose (like with a spray) can cause a loss of smell.”
Johnson also says honey is great for helping to get rid of a lingering cough.
“(A study found) that adding honey to coffee was more effective in treating adults’ post-cold coughs than taking a steroid,” she writes.
The flu may be more hardcore, but you actually have a better shot at preventing the flu than you do the common cold. Because, well, vaccines.
Here are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s other recommendations for avoiding getting or spreading the flu:
- Avoid close contact with those who are sick
- Stay home when you are sick
- Cover your mouth and nose to prevent others from getting sick
- Wash your hands often
- Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth
- Practice good health habits, like getting enough sleep, staying physically active, managing stress, staying hydrated and following a healthy diet
On the other hand, there is no vaccination for the common cold. For your best bet at keeping a cold at bay, use the common sense listed above: Wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with sick people.
A version of this story was originally published October 2011 and updated January 2017.