Top 3 Tips on How to Tell a Cold from the Flu

January 16, 2018

Cold and flu season is in full swing, bringing coughing, sneezing and sore throats to households around the country. Whether you’re already experiencing symptoms or simply want to be prepared, knowing the difference between a cold and the flu can help you to get the treatment you need to feel better faster and avoid serious complications.

But how do you tell the difference? Truthfully, it can be tough. Because colds and the flu are both respiratory infections that are caused by viruses, the symptoms sometimes are similar. Here are a few tips that can help you figure out which illness is responsible for your misery:

  1. Look at your symptoms.

    Cold and flu symptoms often overlap, but there are some symptoms that can signal the flu. When you have a cold, you will probably experience symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, headache and mild tiredness.

    Although flu symptoms also include a runny or stuffy nose, cough, sore throat and headache, you may also have a fever, chills and muscle or body aches. You also may experience nausea and vomiting, but this is usually more common in children.

  2. Look at how your illness started.

    How your illness started can provide clues about whether you are dealing with a cold or the flu.

    Colds usually come on gradually. One of the first signs of a cold may be a tickle or soreness in your throat or a little extra stuffiness in your nose. You may notice these mild “warning” symptoms a day or two before you develop a full-blown cold.

    The flu, on the other hand, usually comes on suddenly. Sometimes, people with the flu will feel so bad that all they want to do is crawl into bed within an hour or two of noticing the first symptoms.

  3. Look at the severity of your symptoms.

    Cold symptoms are usually mild. Although colds are bothersome and will cause mild tiredness, many people can still perform most of their daily activities—especially if they use an over-the-counter medication such as a decongestant or antihistamine to help relieve discomfort.

    If you have the flu, the symptoms likely will be much more severe. You may have a moderate to high fever, chills that make you shake, muscle aches and extreme tiredness that is enough to keep you in bed for a few days.

What to Do If You Have the Flu

If you think you might have the flu, it’s a good idea to visit your healthcare provider for a rapid flu test within two days of first showing symptoms. Your healthcare provider will swab the back of your nose or throat to collect a sample and will give you your test results within about 15 minutes.

If you have the flu, your healthcare provider may be able to give you an antiviral medication that will help you to feel better faster and may prevent serious complications such as pneumonia and bacterial infections. These antiviral medications work best when given within two days of the first sign of flu symptoms, but can still be helpful if they are started later.

Even if you don’t have the flu, your healthcare provider may be able to recommend some over-the-counter medications and offer home care tips to help you feel better.

Getting Better

Although cold symptoms can last for up to two weeks, most people begin to feel better and resume normal activities after a few days and some extra rest. Flu symptoms last 1-2 weeks and can be severe, but getting the right treatment can help you get better more quickly.

If you think you might be dealing with the flu, the nurse practitioners (NPs) at The Nurse’s Office are here for you. To find out more about how the NPs at The Nurse’s Office can help you feel better faster, visit, call (860) 603-3541 or walk in for immediate care.


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