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Cold vs. flu: how to read and treat your symptoms

Cough, congestion, aches, chills. Cold and flu season is upon us. But which do you have? And why does it matter?

Both the common cold and influenza (the flu) are respiratory illnesses, but flu symptoms are more severe than the common cold and can lead to complications such as pneumonia or bacterial infections.

Get the Flu FACTS

While many cold symptoms can mimic the flu, there are five FACTS that generally point to influenza:

  • Fever
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Tiredness
  • Sudden symptoms

cold vs flu symptoms infographic

Fever, headache, severe body aches and chills are red flags for the flu. Sneezing, runny or stuffy nose and sore throat are more likely tied to a common cold.

Flu symptoms often appear suddenly, within three to six hours, whereas cold symptoms might appear more gradually. Both illnesses may make you feel tired, but with the flu this symptom is more extreme.

Stop Flu in Its Tracks

If you suspect you have the flu, contact your primary care provider to test for the influenza virus and prescribe an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu.

If taken within 12 to 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, antivirals can stop the flu from spreading throughout your body and shorten the duration of your misery.

“Just” a Cold

Cold symptoms can drag you down, but over-the-counter medications can help. Just be sure not to take medication for symptoms you don’t have.

Unlike antivirals, however, cold meds don’t attack the virus; they just relieve symptoms. The only cure for the common cold is time.

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