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Is It a Cold or the Flu? Prevention, Symptoms, Treatments

Warning Signs of Severe Flu

Seek medical care if you aren’t getting any better. Signs of trouble can include:

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In children:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

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In infants:

In addition to the signs above, get medical help right away for any infant who has any of these signs:

  • Being unable to eat
  • Has no tears when crying
  • Significantly fewer wet diapers than normal

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In adults:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

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Most viral respiratory infections, like the common cold, come and go within a few days, with no lasting effects. But the flu can cause serious health problems and can result in hospitalization or death.

You can fight back by adopting healthy habits and by using medicines and vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to combat and help prevent the flu.

If you are generally healthy, here’s how to tell if you have a cold or the flu, and when to seek medical care.

Symptoms of Colds and Flu

Flu and cold viruses spread mainly by droplets, when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk. You also can get infected by touching a surface or object that has viruses on it. Flu season in the United States may begin as early as October and can last as late as May, and generally peaks between December and February.

Colds. Symptoms of colds usually are a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. Other symptoms include coughing, a scratchy throat, and watery eyes. There is no vaccine to prevent colds, which come on gradually and often spread through everyday contact.

Flu. Symptoms of the flu come on suddenly and can include fever, headache, chills, dry cough, sore throat, body or muscle aches, tiredness, and feeling generally miserable. Like the viruses that cause a cold, flu viruses can cause a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. Young children also may experience nausea and vomiting.

Check with your health care provider promptly if you are at high risk for flu-related complications and you have flu symptoms — or if you have flu symptoms that do not improve. People at high risk include:

  • Children younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than age 2
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain chronic health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease)
  • People 65 or older

For more tips on the difference between a cold and the flu, visit this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site.

Rapid Flu Tests Are Available

Some health care providers can give you an FDA-approved rapid flu test. There are 13 rapid flu tests on the market with an updated performance criteria that the FDA created to provide reasonable assurance that the test is accurate, reliable, and clinically valid.

But know that, according to the CDC’s flu testing guidelines, you don’t need testing — or to await test results — before your health care provider can prescribe antiviral medication. Your health care provider will decide what to prescribe based on the signs and symptoms you have.

What to Do if You’re Already Sick

Colds usually run their course. When you’re sick, limit exposing yourself to other people. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Also, stay hydrated and rested; avoid alcohol and caffeinated products.

There are FDA-approved prescription medications — called antivirals — for treating flu. Also, a cold or flu may lead to a bacterial infection (such as bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia) that could require antibiotics.

Rest assured that most people with the flu who aren't at high risk have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. Still, your symptoms may last up to two weeks.

How to Safely Take OTC Medicines for Cold or Flu Symptoms

Read medicine labels carefully and follow the directions. People with certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, should check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a new cough or cold medicine.

Choose the right OTC medicines for your symptoms.

  • Nasal decongestants help unclog a stuffy nose.
  • Cough suppressants help relieve coughs.
  • Expectorants help loosen mucus.
  • Antihistamines help stop a runny nose and sneezing.
  • Pain relievers can help ease fever, headaches, and minor aches.

Check the medicine’s side effects. Medications can cause drowsiness and interact with food, alcohol, dietary supplements, and other medicines. Tell your doctor and pharmacist about every medical product and supplement you are taking.

Check with a health care professional before giving medicine to children.

Looking Ahead: Prevention Tips

Get Vaccinated Against the Flu. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated every year. That’s because flu viruses can change from year to year, so the vaccines may need to be updated to protect against new strains. Also, the protection provided by the previous year’s vaccine will diminish over time and may be too low to provide protection into the next year.

With rare exceptions, everyone ages 6 months and older should be vaccinated against flu. The vaccine is an important step for reducing flu illnesses and preventing flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.

Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk for developing serious complications from flu. People who use tobacco or who are exposed to secondhand smoke; health care workers; and anyone who lives with or cares for people at high risk for serious flu-related complications should also get vaccinated.

Babies younger than 6 months are too young to get a flu vaccine. So the CDC recommends that pregnant women and parents of infants should get a flu shot to help protect themselves and their babies during those early months. Also, all the baby’s caregivers and close contacts should be vaccinated.

Wash your hands often. Teach children to do the same. Both colds and flu can be passed through contaminated surfaces, including the hands. Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.

Limit exposure to infected people. Keep infants away from crowds for the first few months of life.

Updated: March 14, 2018

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Page Last Updated: 03/15/2018
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