Flu vs. Cold Symptoms: What's the Difference?

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By Addah Arcilla | September 4, 2014 12:38 PM EST

Knowing the difference between flu and cold symptoms can save you from more serious illnesses. While cold symptoms can make you feel sick for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel ill for a few days to a week. It can also lead to other serious illnesses like pneumonia.

Common cold symptoms according to Mayo Clinic are as follows: itchy or sore throat, sneezing, runny or congested nose, cough, watery eyes, slight body aches or mild headache, slight fever and mild fatigue.

A common cold usually starts with a sore throat that goes away after a few days. A runny nose and Nasal congestion follows along with a cough by the fourth or fifth day. Later, your mucus may become thicker and darker as the cold runs its course.  

People with cold symptoms generally do not have a high fever and are unlikely to experience considerable fatigue.

More than a hundred viruses can cause a common cold. Cold symptoms may last for about a week. You are most contagious during the first three days of having cold symptoms, so it is best to stay at home and get some rest.

Cold complications may lead to sinusitis; acute ear infection, particularly in children; wheezing in children with asthma; and other secondary infections, including croup, strep throat and pneumonia.

Flu symptoms may start like the common cold with sneezing, a runny nose and a sore throat. But while you develop cold symptoms bit by bit, flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly.

According to Mayo clinic, flu symptoms may include fever over 38°C (100 °F), chills and sweats, aching muscles (particularly in the arms, back and legs), fatigue and weakness, headache, nasal congestion and dry cough.

Flu viruses enter our body the same way cold viruses enter our body through the mucus membranes of our nose, eyes and mouth. Flu viruses travel through the air in droplets. You can inhale flu viruses directly when someone with the flu coughs or sneezes. You can also pick up the germs from an object and transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth.

Flu symptoms normally improve gradually over two to five days, though you may still feel run down for a week or more. Common complications of flu are pneumonia and bronchitis. Pneumonia can be life threatening for older people and people with a chronic illness.

Cold and Flu Treatment

There is no treatment for the common cold. Antibiotics have no effect on cold viruses. Over-the-counter cold remedies will not even cure it; they only provide temporary relief as they do not effectively treat the underlying cause of the cold.

Flu treatment, on the other hand, may require you to take antiviral medication within 24 to 48 hours of onset. Your doctor may prescribe oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza).

Cold and Flu Prevention

No vaccine exists against the common cold. The most important prevention measure that you can take against the common cold, as well as the flu, is the frequent washing of hands. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 minutes to slough the germs off your skin.

The best preventive measure against the flu is an annual flu vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu vaccination beginning at the age of 6 months.  Flu antibodies develop in the body within two weeks of getting the vaccination. Children taking the vaccination for the first time need to take two doses one month apart.

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