Tis the season – unfortunately we’re talking flu season- where you start to wonder if what you’re feeling is more than just the common cold. With December 2 – 8 marking National Influenza Vaccination Week, it’s a timely step to receive your flu vaccine (if you haven’t already) and to better understand the flu symptoms in adults so that if you do get sick this winter, you can tell if you have the flu or have contracted a common cold.
The truth is that it can be difficult for a patient to distinguish between the two since both illnesses are caused by viruses that bring on upper respiratory symptoms, and both are widespread in the autumn and winter. Only a test from your doctor can definitively identify influenza, but here are some good ways to tell the flu from a cold. We will also let you know when your flu or cold symptoms should prompt a visit to your doctor.
Flu or Cold: Symptom Onset and Duration
While the flu and a cold share many symptoms between them, influenza usually has a faster onset. In other words, you can easily experience the height of your flu symptoms within 24 – 48 hours after noticing your first sniffle, cough or hint of fatigue. A cold has a more gradual ramp-up. It is not uncommon to suffer from mild cold symptoms – sneezing, a runny nose, etc. – for a week or more before the illness worsens.
The flu also has a slightly shorter average duration compared to colds. While the flu lasts about 5 – 7 days, the average cold lingers for 7 – 10 days. You should note that these durations can be extremely difficult to gauge accurately because of the potential for two illnesses to be present simultaneously in a patient. For example, you can be experiencing seasonal allergies at the same time as a cold, which could extend your symptoms. Also, the flu can lead to other serious conditions like pneumonia, which would cause persistent symptoms.
Flu or Cold: Severity of Symptoms
In general, a case of influenza is more severe than a cold. While a cold can certainly make you feel run-down, the flu often results in severe fatigue, even outright exhaustion. A person suffering from the flu may be pretty much confined to their bed, while those enduring a cold are often well enough to continue with their day-to-day activities.
Fever severity is another differentiator between cold and flu. Abnormally high body temperature is rare with a cold and is almost always mild when it does occur. But with a flu infection, fever is common and may easily exceed 100O Fahrenheit.
Finally, a cough is typically present with both cold and flu. However, the cough is commonly more pronounced in flu cases. Often, the cough accompanying colds is due to postnasal drip – nasal drainage that irritates your throat. With the flu, your cough is more likely to be the result of chest congestion.
Flu or Cold: Specific Symptoms to Recognize
A stuffy or running nose and a sore throat are more frequent with colds than the flu. On the other hand, full-body aches and headaches are more likely to be flu symptoms. If you are experiencing chills or shivering in a warm room, chances are you have a case of the flu rather than a cold.
When to See Your Doctor for Cold or Flu Symptoms
Both colds and flu will generally resolve on their own for healthy adult patients. However, elderly patients or patients that have compromised immune systems should immediately see their physicians when experiencing cold or flu symptoms. The illnesses can worsen rapidly in these individuals, and they need medical monitoring.
For other adult patients, you need to visit your doctor if you notice any trouble breathing or difficulty with swallowing. It is vital to keep yourself hydrated, no matter how bad you feel. So if you cannot keep liquids down, it’s time for medical attention. Also, a fever over 100.4O Fahrenheit needs to be addressed by your doctor.
Finally, you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor for any stubborn symptoms. If your cold or flu symptoms simply do not go away after about a week, you should let your physician know. These symptoms may be a sign that you have a more serious condition, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Even if you are certain that you have a cold rather than the flu, prolonged symptoms could indicate a sinus infection or other illness that requires medical attention.