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Differences Between a Cold and the Flu

Differences Between a Cold and the Flu

Remember that scene in You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan has a terrible cold and then surprise! Tom Hanks is there to take care of her, and it’s adorable and sweet and everything you could want out of a romantic comedy?

It’s great and all, but listen, there are two things I know: one, if Shopgirl had been sick with the flu, she would definitely have NOT been so quick with the quips, and two, if my life is any indication, getting sick is never that romantic. Oh, and no, you can’t sue Nora Ephron for giving you unrealistic expectations about love and pen pals and bookstores.

Okay, so I guess I know three things.

Ability to come up with quips aside, though, the flu and the common cold are pretty similar — but there are a few key differences that we’ll address in this article. 

A woman blowing her nose


Symptoms of a Cold 

  • Sore throat
  • Congestion (including a stuffy and/or runny nose)
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Mild fatigue/weakness

These symptoms usually come on gradually and last for about a week. (You’re contagious for the first three days of your cold, so please stay home and get some rest next time you’re feeling one come on!)


Symptoms of the Flu 

  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Achiness
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue/weakness

Flu symptoms can include cold symptoms (although it has its own symptoms, like fever and chills, that do not typically accompany a cold), but are usually much more severe. Unlike cold symptoms, which usually appear gradually, flu symptoms come on abruptly.


A hand holding pills


How Severe Can a Cold Become?

The life cycle of a cold is usually anywhere from a week to ten days, so if you’ve reached ten days with no hint of respite, it’s probably time to see a doctor. While a cold typically isn’t anything to worry about, it can develop into something more serious, like sinusitis, acute bronchitis, or even secondary infections such as pneumonia.


How Severe Can the Flu Become?

You likely didn’t need to read this article to know that the flu is more serious than a cold, and that the same applies to its complications. Complications of the flu can be life-threatening, and the CDC’s website includes a thorough list of emergency warning signs that needed to be treated by a medical professional right away. 

The flu can turn into a host of other issues, including more mild illnesses like a throat or ear infection. However, dangerous complications are also possible, including myocarditis and/or encephalitis (inflammation of the heart and brain, respectively), organ failure, and sepsis.

If you are at higher risk for getting the flu (people in this category include those 65 years of age and older, children, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions), make sure to get your flu shot. 

How to know the difference between a cold and the flu


How to Know the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

When it comes to knowing whether or not you have the flu or a cold, there are a few tell-tale signs: did your symptoms come on abruptly? Are they more severe than your usual cold? Do you have a fever or chills? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you likely have the flu. If your symptoms are milder and came on more gradually, you probably have the common cold.

The cold and the flu are both unpleasant, but the flu is more likely to knock you flat and leaving you feeling all kinds of crummy. Regardless of what you have, though, stay home! Your willingness to do so will keep others from getting sick or developing complications — and honestly, I think I speak for us all when I say that’s the best thing you could do for 2021.

Thank you in advance.

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