How Can You Tell If You Have A Cold Or The Flu?

Is it a cold or the flu? | iStock/Getty Images

The 2018 – 2019 flu vaccine is now available and on the heels of last year’s deadly season, many are probably lining up to receive the shot. Flu season “officially” begins in October, which is why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest people get vaccinated ahead of time, The Miami Herald reports.

Last year’s flu virus was considered to be severe amongst all age groups, with illness tracked from November through the end of March. Researchers aren’t sure what to expect for this year’s season but urge the community, especially children to get vaccinated. As flu season ramps up, so does cold season. In fact, cold season begins as early as August and lasts through April. With cold and flu season running at the same time, knowing if you have a cold or the flu can be tough. Since you can still get flu symptoms even if you’ve had the vaccine, here’s how to tell between a cold and the flu.

A cold and the flu can have similar symptoms

Both are viruses that can mimic each other, making it a challenge to discern if you have a cold or the flu. Sneezing, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat may be associated with a cold and the flu, according to the CDC. Also, you may experience fatigue and weakness and a cough or chest discomfort with both viruses. However, with a cold, chest discomfort and a cough are mild or moderate.

The flu has these distinctive characteristics

Where the flu and the common cold divert is with a few distinct symptoms. The flu will hit you suddenly, where you will experience more of a slow onset with a cold, the CDC reports. Fever is common with the flu, whereas it is rare with a cold. Chills and a headache are other common flu symptoms, whereas you are not likely to experience these with a cold. Also, the typical cold lasts about 10 days, according to Healthline. The flu, with no complications, lasts from three days to a week.

Complications from a cold

The common cold can develop into a secondary infection, according to The Mayo Clinic. Infections that require a physician’s care include strep throat, pneumonia, and croup or bronchiolitis, especially in children. Other possible infections include an acute inner ear infection, asthma, and acute sinusitis.

Complications from the flu

Tissue, flu medicines and tea on bedside table sick woman

Flu complications can be dangerous. | iStock.com/CandyBoxImages

Flu complications can be serious and even deadly, the CDC reports. While you can develop an ear infection or sinusitis from the flu, serious complications may occur. Inflammation may be to blame for heart issues (myocarditis), brain inflammation (encephalitis), and inflammation of the muscle tissues (myositis, rhabdomyolysis). You could also experience multiple organ failure such as respiratory or kidney failure.

Warning signs

Emergency warning signs your flu needs immediate medical treatment include shortness or difficulty breathing and symptoms that return after improving, according to the CDC. Look for reduced fluid intake, excessive sleepiness, and fever with a rash in children. Dizziness, confusion, and persistent vomiting in adults is a warning sign. Infants who are unable to eat, crying without tears or have a reduced number of wet diapers should receive medical help immediately.

Who is at risk for flu

While last year’s flu was dangerous to the entire population, some individuals are more susceptible than others.  High-risk individuals include children younger than age 5, but especially infants under age 2. Also, adults age 65 or older. Pregnant women are also high-risk. You may be high-risk if you have a weakened immune disorder or have certain conditions.

How to avoid getting the flu

Boy cries as he gets flu vaccination

Get vaccinated.| Viktor Bartenev/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to the yearly flu vaccine, the CDC has additional recommendations to avoid the flu. Avoid contact with sick people, stay home if you are sick, and cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces.

If you get the flu, consider asking your doctor for an antiviral medication during the first two days of getting sick. An antiviral drug can reduce symptoms, duration, and severity of your flu.

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