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> Health Flu Is it a Cold, or Is it the Flu?

Is it a Cold, or Is it the Flu?
Know the symptoms!

The way we define the Flu becomes blurred in everyday conversation. Sometimes, no matter what aches—head, stomach, or anything in between—we say we have the "flu." And when we suffer from a bout of runny nose and coughing, we are as likely to call it a cold as we are to call it the flu.

It's important to know when you have the Flu—the real flu. It's important because, unlike a common cold, a case of the flu can lead to a case of pneumonia. Pneumonia is very serious and often requires hospitalization. If you don't know what you have, you're less likely to get the care you need.

In fact, the flu is marked by very characteristic symptoms. By contrast, there are symptoms from common ailments like a "cold" or "stomach bug" that are not always associated with the flu. The chart below shows what to expect from a cold, and what—and what not—to expect with a case of the flu. Of course, if you get a flu shot the chances of getting the flu are very slim!

Symptoms COLD FLU
Fever Rare Characteristic, high
lasts 3-4 days
Headache Rare Prominent
General Aches, Pains Slight Usual; often severe
Fatigue, Weakness Quite mild Can last up to 2 weeks
Extreme Exhaustion Never Early and prominent
Stuffy Nose Common Sometimes
Sneezing Usual Sometimes
Sore Throat Common Sometimes
Chest Discomfort, Cough Mild to moderate;
hacking cough
can become severe
Stomach ache; gastro-intestinal upset or distress Absent or mild More common among children than adults
Complications Sinus congestion
or earache
Bronchitis, pneumonia;
can be life-threatening
Prevention Hand washing and personal hygiene Hand washing and personal hygiene;
Annual flu shot
Treatment Only temporary
relief of symptoms
Antiviral medicines
—see your doctor

Adapted from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (2001)