Is it a Cold or the Flu?


Cold or Flu?Although similar in some ways, the flu and common cold affect the body differently. Here’s how you can tell if you are suffering from influenza or a run-of-the-mill viral infection.

The Common Cold

Caused by a viral infection, the common cold is usually harmless for people with healthy immune systems. Most of the time, a cold leads to minor symptoms, including nasal congestion, which can sometimes cause a sore throat via post nasal drip.

In certain instances, a cold can also cause what’s known as viral syndrome, which is a term that refers to general symptoms of a viral infection that occur without a clear cause. In this case, a patient may experience a wider range of relatively mild symptoms, including congestion, moderate body aches, chills, cough, a mild fever, malaise and/or a sore throat. As the cold runs its course, discharge from the nose may become thicker, yellow or green. That said, this does not usually indicate a bacterial infection.

Most people recover from a cold within seven to ten days; however, symptoms may persist longer in people who smoke cigarettes. While children tend to be at greater risk for contracting colds, adults typically contract two to three each year.


While the common cold can be caused by a range of viruses, the flu is caused by the influenza virus. In most cases, the flu results in a relatively mild illness. In some cases, however, influenza can cause serious life-threatening complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 300,000 people are hospitalized with flu symptoms every year. Most of the time, these people are very young, very old or have existing health issues. In some cases, however, even very healthy people can have life-threatening reactions to the flu. This is why it’s so important to get vaccinated against the influenza virus every year.

When they contract the flu, most people experience several unpleasant symptoms, including:

• Sore throat
• Sweats and chills
• Headache
• Muscle aches
• Weakness and fatigue
• Nasal congestion
• Dry, persistent cough
• A fever over 100.4 F (38 C)
• Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

Most healthy people can expect to recover from the flu within about two weeks. On the other hand, if you experience any of the following, you should see a doctor:

• Shortness of breath
• Sharp pain in the chest when breathing
• Severe earache
• A fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit
• Severe lightheadedness or loss of consciousness

You should also visit your doctor if you have any of the following risk factors which may leave you more vulnerable to complications:

• You are pregnant.
• You are over 65 or under 5 years of age.
• You have a weakened immune system due to infections, medications or cancer treatments.
• You have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, neuromuscular disease, emphysema, emphysema liver, kidney or blood disease.
• You are an Alaska Native or American Indian.
• You live in a long-term care facility.
• Your body mass index (BMI) is 40 or greater.

If you do have any of these risk factors, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, such as zanamivir (Relenza) or oseltamivir (Tamiflu).

Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Written by Dr. Jeannie Kenkare

Dr. Kenkare is a highly experienced clinician with a background in family medicine. As a founding member of PhysicianOne Urgent Care's parent company Happy Mountains, she is also our Chief Medical Officer. Dr. Kenkare provides guidance and leadership to our health care team, and is responsible for the review of clinical guidelines, decision tools, and outcomes to develop and implement strategies that will improve patient care and clinical quality.


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