Flu vs. Cold: Understanding the Differences

In Diagnosis & Treatment, Online Doctor, Telemedicine, The Flu by Dr. Clinton Osborn

When winter approaches, everybody tends to start sneezing, sniffling, coughing, and shivering. After all, that is the time of year where the cold and flu virus goes rampant. Both the cold and the flu are respiratory illnesses that are caused by a different virus. Because they have similar signs and symptoms, it can be challenging to differentiate between both of them. You can always speak with a doctor to find out, but we’ll be breaking down the differences here as well.

In general, the flu has much more severe symptoms and can leave you feeling extremely miserable. The cold, on the other hand, have milder symptoms, but can still leave you in bed for the whole day. Another thing to keep in mind is that the flu is more likely to result in severe complications of bacterial infection, pneumonia, or hospitalization. Because the cold is much milder, people often experience a simple runny or stuffy nose. Some cold symptoms are so mild that the person does not even know that they have a cold, and just excuse it as an allergy symptom.

It is essential to understand the basic information between a cold and the flu. This can be helpful if your family, friends, or you have gotten infected. This information will help you understand the difference between the cold and the flu. That way, you would know what to expect, and the duration of the illness. With this vital info, you can definitely fight against these viruses and triumph over them.

What is the Flu?

Before getting any deeper into the difference between a cold and the flu, it’s best to understand what they are. One of the most common questions that people ask is, “what is the flu?” The flu is commonly caused by the influenza virus and is highly contagious. This virus occurs more frequently in the winter and early spring. You can obtain the virus by being near someone sick, through respiratory droplets, or touching items with the virus on it. The virus attacks the body by going through the upper and lower respiratory system. This is why it’s important to get yourself vaccinated so your body can fight off the influenza virus.

The flu virus mutates its genetic material on a constant basis to become resistant to stress in the environment and potential medication. Because of this, the flu vaccine is continuously changing to keep up with the viral mutation. Even though the flu vaccine is highly effective, you may end up getting sick as the flu vaccine only covers specific strains of the influenza virus. Usually, seniors and young children may have a worse time dealing with the infection than a healthy, young adult. After all, children and seniors have a weaker immune system than young adults. With this in mind, it’s highly recommended to get vaccinated to prevent or to reduce the severity of the flu.

Related: Why Should I Use an Online Doctor?

What is a Cold

Whenever you get a slight runny nose, sore throat, cough, or congestion, it kind of makes you wonder what is going on. The most common questions that people get when they experience these symptoms are: What is a cold? Should we be worried? Lucky for you, we are here to answer your questions.

The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory system. It is harmless and less worrisome than the flu. There are many types of viral infections for the cold, but the most common viral strain is the rhinovirus. It enters your body through the eyes, mouth, or nose. The virus can also spread through respiratory droplets in the air, especially when someone talks, sneezes, or coughs. It can also be spread through hand to hand contact or sharing objects, towels, utensils, or toys with an infected individual. Keep in mind that young children and older adults are more likely to get sick from the cold, but healthy, young adults can recover much faster.

Usually, people would recover from a common cold in 7 to 10 days. However, symptoms are more severe in chronic smokers because smoking destroys the cilia in your respiratory tract. That damage prevents it from efficiently trapping and getting rid of the viral infection.

Unlike the flu, there are no vaccines for the common cold, but there are some precautions that you can take. It’s best to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and to use a hand sanitizer. You can also disinfect your stuff, use clean tissues, and avoid sharing cups and utensils. If you know someone is sick, then it’s best to stay clear away from them until they are better. You should also take very good care of yourself by exercising, eating healthy, and getting a good night sleep. After all, your immune system plays a significant role in preventing or fighting off the virus.

What is the Difference Between Flu and Cold?

Since the flu and cold virus causes similar symptoms, we often end up asking ourselves, “what is the difference between flu and cold?” It’s hard to answer that age-old question that patients often ask, but there is a strategy to give you a clue as to what the difference between flu and cold is. The basic answer to this question is that the flu causes worse and more severe symptoms than the cold. Also, the flu is caused by influenza virus whereas the cold is usually caused by a rhinovirus. Another thing to take note on is that the flu has a vaccine for prevention, whereas the cold does not have any specific vaccine to fight against it.

If we dive into the severity of the symptoms between these two viruses, we might be able to know what is the difference between the flu and the cold. The cold often has a gradual onset of symptoms, whereas the flu has an abrupt onset. Often times, people usually don’t get fevers for a cold, but for the flu, it results in a high fever. The cold does not have a lot of aches and pain, whereas the flu has some more severe aches, chills, and fatigue symptoms than the cold.

Overall, with the flu, you tend to feel more pain, weakness, feverish, headaches, and more severe symptoms than the cold. A lot of times, people have a cold but don’t realize it because the symptoms are less severe.

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What are Early Flu and Cold Symptoms?

Sometimes we may experience unusual symptoms without realizing if we are sick or not. This is why it’s essential to know what the early flu and cold symptoms are, so we can get the correct medical treatment.

Early cold symptoms often entail sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, congestion, coughing, sneezing, low-grade or without fever, malaise, and a slight headache with body pain. You may witness a thick, yellow, or green discharge running from your nose, but don’t worry, it’s not a bacterial infection.

If the cold virus does not leave your system, it can result in potential complications such as asthma attacks, otitis media, acute sinusitis, and secondary infections like pneumonia. However, it’s very rare for cold infections to lead to any complications. Viral infection can result in these discharges, but it will generally go away on its own.

The flu symptoms often entail high fever, sore throat, cough, muscle/body aches, runny and stuffy nose, extreme fatigue, headaches, and in severe cases: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If the viral infection from the flu stays in your body for a long time, it can lead to secondary complications of severe pneumonia and bacterial infections.

If you look closely, you can see that the cold and flu symptoms often overlap, but if you judge on the severity, then flu symptoms often have more abrupt and severe cases. It’s best to always ask a doctor, which you can do online for faster results.

How Long do Flu Symptoms Last?

There is no accurate way to tell how long flu symptoms last because everyone is different on how their body fights off the flu virus. For the majority of healthy individuals, the flu may last for a short period. The symptoms could appear from 1 to 4 days after the viral exposure and lasts up to 5 to 7 days. If you have the flu shot, then the symptoms could be shorter and less severe.

Unfortunately, for some people, the flu can be quite devastating. For example, babies, people older than 65, people with a chronic illness (like asthma, HIV, diabetes, and heart disease), pregnant women, or people with a BMI of 40 or higher may experience more severe flu symptoms.

Overall, it depends on your immune system. The individuals listed above tend to have a weaker immune system so they would have a hard time fighting off the virus. Keep in mind that if the flu symptoms last longer than ten days or symptoms get worse and not better, then it’s best to see a doctor. This may indicate a secondary complication such as pneumonia that will require antibiotic medications. If you can’t get access to the hospital, then a doctor online can video chat with you and prescribe the proper antibiotic medication to get rid of the infection.

If the flu is caught early and you receive medical treatment quickly, the amount of time that the flu symptoms last can be drastically reduced.

How to Get Over the Flu?

Getting over the flu is a very easy task. However, some people make it way more complicated than it needs to be. If you are curious about how to get over the flu, then you are in luck. We have all the juicy details for you.

The first thing to know is that if you go to the doctor within 48 hours, they can prescribe you a medication called Tamiflu. Tamiflu can help shorten the symptoms and duration of the influenza virus in your body, therefore helping you recover faster and more efficiently. However, after the 48-hour window, the medication becomes useless, but it’s still important to see a doctor to make sure that this is not a bacterial infection.

Unlike the flu, bacterial infections will not leave without antibiotic treatment. Plus, with the proper treatment strategy, you would be able to recover successfully. If you get the flu, it’s vital to rest and drink plenty of water. You can take medication such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen to reduce the pain and fever. You can also take vitamin C to help strengthen your immune system.

If you have other symptoms like a runny nose, you can take the nasal spray and install a humidifier in your room to help reduce and to thin out the mucus. If you have a severe cough, then it’s best to take cough drops and cough syrup to help alleviate your throat. You can also make chamomile tea, and mix in ginger, honey, and lemon to help soothe your throat. You should normally get better within 7 to 10 days, but if the flu symptoms get any worse, then it’s best to see a doctor for potential bacterial infection.

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of waiting in the ER for hours, then it’s vital to see a doctor online for video consultation and prescription for antibiotics.

How to Get Over a Cold?

If you are curious as to how to get over a cold, then we are here to help you. The strategies are very similar to the flu except Tamiflu does not work for colds.

The first strategy of treating a cold is to stay hydrated with water, soup, or warm lemon water with honey and ginger. It’s best to avoid coffee and caffeinated beverages because it can dehydrate or worsen your throat.

The next step is to stay in bed and rest, so keep all distractions away from you. You can also eat oranges or take a vitamin C supplement to strengthen your immune system. If you have a sore throat, you can gargle salt water, eat lozenges, take cough drops, or have some cough syrup. With nasal congestion, you can use an over-the-counter nasal spray to help alleviate your congestion.

If you have pain and fever, you can take ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If your cold symptoms are getting worse and last more than seven to 10 days, then it is best to see a doctor for potential bacterial infection.

Take Home Message

With all this in mind, you will know what to do when you get symptoms of cough, fever, nasal congestion, headaches, or body aches. You will never have to panic again with the knowledge to know: what is the flu, what is a cold, what is the difference between flu and cold, what are early flu and cold symptoms, how long do flu symptoms last, how to get over the flu, and how to get over the cold. The proper prevention and treatment strategy can help you get over the flu and cold in no time. That way, you and your loved one can finally relax and recover successfully.

Related: The Flu, You and Your Family – What you need to know about diagnosis and treatment by an online physician!


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