Is it the Flu or Just a Common Cold?

When cold and flu season come around it seems like everybody at the office takes turns sniffling and sneezing. Elementary schools are suddenly full of the sounds of coughing and of students complaining that they don't feel good.


Everybody starts to take vitamin C supplements and other over the counter medicines to ward off the sickness. Nearly everyone winds up having to take a few days off work or out of school with a virus keeping them under the weather. The viruses can cycle around and around communities for what seems like months at a time. Even though both the common cold and influenza have similar symptoms and tend to come around at the same time they are completely different illnesses. 

Common Symptoms

What we call a cold is one of a number of viruses causing similar symptoms. Influenza is more commonly known as the flu, and it is also comprised of one of a few different viruses. The flu is typically contagious for somewhere between three and four days.  Both common illnesses come with very similar symptoms, which probably include:

  • Generalized aches and a feeling of grogginess
  • Sore throat
  • Stopped up or stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Headaches

With either illness you are going to feel bad for several days and experience a lowered amount of energy. So how do you know if what you or your office mates have is influenza, or if what you have is the less serious common cold?

What’s the Difference?

So how can you determine if you have the cold or if you have the flu? There are some key differences. The flu almost always comes with deep muscle aches and joint pain. Many people complain that it feels as though their bones ache.

In addition, you are more likely to have a fever with the flu than you are with a cold. Influenza always comes with a fever associated with it and it will usually be over 101 degrees. Although some people experience a low-grade fever with a cold it will not usually be over 101 degrees and should only last a day or so.

The effects of flu often last longer than those of a common cold. Cold symptoms usually subside within a week, but the flu can leave people with low energy and achiness for two weeks or more. The flu is also more likely to leave you with complications like pneumonia or bronchitis which can extend your illness for weeks.

Treatment Options

So how do you treat influenza or the common cold? Over the counter treatments can provide a lot of symptom relief for both sicknesses. Common painkillers also reduce fever and relieve achiness caused by your illness. Over the counter cold relief medications can help with the congestion and may aid in sinus cavity drainage. In both cases you should be certain to drink plenty of liquids and get lots of rest so that your body can fight off the viruses. Some cases of the flu respond well to medications. It's important to start these early, so if you suspect you may have the flu you'll want to visit your doctor as soon as possible. There is no medication currently that helps fight the cold virus itself. If you find that you have a cold and not the flu your best course of action is to get plenty of rest and take over the counter medications that target your symptoms.

Many people choose to be vaccinated for the flu in the months before flu season starts. The influenza vaccine does not give protection against all strains of the flu, but instead it is targeted at the strain of influenza most likely to affect your area of the country. Because of this, it is possible to be vaccinated for one strain of influenza but still contract a different strain of flu virus. Even though it's not always 100% effective it is usually a good idea to talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated for the flu before flu season begins in your area. In the case of both the flu and the common cold washing your hands frequently and keeping your distance from people affected with the virus remain the most effective ways to avoid getting sick.