The Flu vs. the Common Cold: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Dec 12 • 2016

It’s the age old question – are my symptoms a sign of the flu or is it just the common cold? It can be easy to mix up the two, but knowing how to differentiate can help you stop an infection in its tracks and prevent yourself from feeling worse. Baptist Dr. Mark Castellaw shared his tips for how to know the difference.

Cold vs. Flu

While the common cold and the flu are both viruses, they have different symptoms and different treatment methods. “The common cold with last 2-3 days with little or no fever,” said Dr. Castellaw. “Most will respond to OTC treatments. There is a possibility of secondary sinus infection or bronchitis. If symptoms last for more than three days, see your doctor.”

The course of the flu is typically more severe than that of the cold – a fever of 101 degrees is not uncommon. “Associated joint and muscle pain usually occurs with the flu,” he said. “Seeing a doctor is important to get tested and if positive, started on medication.”

Reducing Your Risk

While there is no way to completely prevent getting the cold or flu, there are several steps you can take daily to reduce your risk. “Good handwashing will reduce the risk for both cold and flu,” said Dr. Castellaw. “Clean your work area daily. Cellphones, landlines, etc. can harbor viruses and bacteria. Encourage others to stay home if sick, including yourself, to avoid spreading infections.”

Treatment Options

When it comes to the cold, treatment is limited to symptomatic treatment with over-the-counter medications. “Check with your doctor to see if it is okay to take OTC medications with your health conditions, especially if you have high blood pressure or heart disease,” he said. “The flu, if caught early, can respond and lessen in severity with drugs like Tamiflu. People with high-risk illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and COPD are at highest risk for complications.”

Getting your flu shot is the first line of defense during flu season. “Unfortunately there is no vaccine for the common cold – just common sense and chicken soup.”

If you’re feeling sick but aren’t sure if you’re experiencing the flu or the common cold, make an appointment with your doctor today.