Lavern Davidhizar, DO
Cold vs. Flu: Dangers, Symptoms, and Treatments
If you’re feeling generally lousy and unwell, with symptoms like a fever, joint aches, a cough, and sneezing, how can you tell if you have a common cold or a seasonal flu?
The two conditions are both caused by viruses, and their symptoms tend to overlap. Though only a doctor can tell you for certain which type of virus you have, there is one clue to help you guess at the severity of your illness: how quickly it comes on.
Colds are usually gradual and relatively minor. They tend to develop over several days, and their symptoms, while unpleasant, are less severe than flu symptoms. For example, you may run a slightly elevated temperature, but not the high fever that you might have with the flu. With a cold, you can still function and go about your daily activities.
The flu is more sudden and severe. Flu symptoms come on within hours. The fever, chills, headaches, and other unpleasant symptoms tend to take over your life, making it difficult for you to function normally until your body has fought off the virus. Work and school out of the question because you feel too ill to focus or stay awake.
Flu Complications and Dangers
Notably, the flu is also significantly more dangerous than a cold, especially to children and pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions or compromised immunity (such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy).
These individuals are more susceptible to complications from influenza (though complications can happen to anyone). According to the CDC, in a minority of cases, the flu can develop into:
Each of these possible complications comes with its own set of worst-case scenario side effects, if the illness goes unchecked.
Because the flu can develop into something worse, the CDC advises annual flu vaccines for most people, especially those in high-risk categories. Prevention is a proactive, responsible way to protect your health.
If you do contract influenza and your experience seems especially severe—or if you are in a high-risk group—see a doctor.
How do you know if you have a cold? Signs and symptoms:
You may not have all of these, but you’ll likely have at least a few. Colds tend to come on gradually and typically last 7 to 10 days, though some colds dig in and stick around longer (up to three weeks).
Influenza signs and symptoms include some or all of these:
If you have a stomach flu, you may also have vomiting and diarrhea. Children are more likely than adults to experience these two symptoms with a flu virus.
The flu comes on very quickly—within hours—and can last 1–2 weeks. The most severe symptoms like fever and headaches usually improve within the first 3 days, but you may have lingering weakness and exhaustion for several more days.
Treating Colds and the Flu
Once you have a cold, the virus needs to run its course. You can’t do much to speed that process along, but you can treat and manage your cold symptoms.
You can help to minimize your cold suffering by:
Most cases of the flu resolve on their own in 1–2 weeks, and symptoms can be treated with ample rest and similar over-the-counter medications as the ones you’d use for a cold.
Fever, sweating, diarrhea, and/or vomiting can all lead to dehydration, and this can lead to a hospital stay in some cases. Above all, be sure to hydrate.
If you feel extremely unwell and your flu seems especially bad—or if you are in a high-risk category—see a doctor right away. In very severe or high-risk flu cases, a physician can prescribe an antiviral drug to help you recover faster, with less severe symptoms.
Avoiding Colds and Flu in Alaska
Unfortunately, total cold and flu prevention can’t be guaranteed, no matter how careful you are. However, Alaskan residents can take measures to reduce their risk of getting sick this winter:
Contact the Family Medical Clinic at (907) 262-7566 in Soldotna, Alaska for your flu or cold needs.