If you’re sneezing, coughing and have a fever, do you know how to tell whether you’ve caught a cold or have the flu? At our clinic, as in clinics and Emergency Rooms all over the world, folks are calling in droves this week to ask if their symptoms might be caused by the Swine Flu (H1N1) virus. So, whether you need to know the answer now or you’re looking into it for future purposes, I can help you sort out this question.
The cold and flu are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different types of viruses.
Flu symptoms usually come on quickly (within 3-6 hours) and consist of a fever, body aches, dry cough, and extreme tiredness.
Cold symptoms are less severe and people experience a stuffy nose, productive cough, slight tiredness, and limited body aches.
The American Academy of Family Physicians offers this list of cold symptoms, and how to tell them apart from symptoms of the flu:
- In general, cold symptoms are milder and come on slowly, while symptoms of the flu tend to occur very suddenly.
- It’s probably a cold if you have a fever no higher than 102 degrees. The flu usually causes fevers higher than that.
- It’s probably a cold if you have symptoms including a congested or runny nose, sneezing and coughing, watery eyes, and a sore throat.
- Symptoms of the flu often include nausea, chills, sweats, vomiting, muscle aches, and loss of appetite.
The chart below, adapted from FluFacts.com is a quick reference to help you determine if what the symptoms you or a loved one have is more likely to be just a cold — or if it’s the flu. Of course, only your doctor can tell you for sure.
Remember that if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, it is better to act fast and speak to your doctor within 12 to 24 hours, as the anti-viral medications used to treat the influenza virus must be started no later than 48 hours after the onset of symptoms – and preferably sooner.
- SYMPTOM COLD FLU
- Fever Rare Usually Present
- Aches Slight Usual, often severe
- Chills Uncommon Fairly common
- Tiredness Mild Moderate to severe
- Symptoms Symptoms appear gradually Symptoms can appear over 3-6 hours
- Coughing Hacking, productive cough Dry, unproductive cough
- Sneezing Common Uncommon
- Stuffy nose Common Uncommon
- Sore throat Common Uncommon
- Chest Discomfort Mild to moderate Often severe
- Headache Uncommon Common
Also, here’s an on-line tool that can help you differentiate between the flu and a cold – just from your symptoms.