Most people will suffer from several colds during their lifetimes but may have the flu only once or twice. This is because a cold is caused by a variety of viruses, while the flu is caused by a very limited number. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a cold is usually much milder than the flu and does not usually lead to serious infections, pneumonia and hospitalization.

However, the symptoms of a cold and the flu can mimic each other. How can you tell if you have a common cold or the flu?

Symptoms of Cold vs. Flu

According to the CDC, it may be difficult to tell a cold and the flu apart, especially at onset of the disease. Special tests can be done to determine if the virus is an influenza type that causes the flu or a more common cold variety. However, there are particular symptoms associated with each disease that can help your doctor make a diagnosis, as well. In general, the symptoms of a cold are:

  • Mild fever, usually less than 102 degree Farenheit in adults, although no fever may be observed
  • Runny or stuff nose with sneezing
  • Loose cough producing phlegm
  • Upset stomach from post-nasal drip

On the other hand, the flu usually has more serious symptoms, such as:

  • High fever accompanied by intense headache or body aches
  • Fatigue, often extreme
  • Dry, unproductive cough
  • Development of pneumonia if left untreated, resulting in difficulty in breathing

What Should I Do To Prevent Colds and Flu?

Prevention is far easier than treating either colds or flu. There are several things you can do to keep yourself from getting sick, such as:

– Wash Your Hands Frequently

According to the National Institute of Health, frequent handwashing has been linked to a reduction in the number of colds experienced by individuals. Cold and flu viruses are often transmitted through touching or handling an object that has been touched by a person with the virus. The recipient then touches their own nose or eyes and passes the virus into the body.

– Avoid Contact With Those Who Have Colds

Both colds and the flu are airborne contaminants that enter the atmosphere when someone sneezes or coughs. Direct contact with a person who is sick can easily cause you to “catch” their cold or the flu.

– Get a Flu Shot

Each year, the CDC makes a “best guess” as to the flu viruses that will be prevalent that year and drug makers prepare vaccines accordingly. A flu shot is not a 100 percent guarantee that you will not get the flu, especially if the virus is of a different strain than that which you are vaccinated against. However, if you do not take the flu shot, it is likely that you will contract the flu if exposed to the virus. With the vaccine, some limited immunity is conferred against all flu viruses and if you do get sick, it is likely you will have a shorter, less serious case.

– Get Plenty of Rest and Liquids

One of the biggest problems experienced by victims of both cold and flu is dehydration. Continue to intake liquids every hour while you are sick, even if you can only manage a few sips. This may prevent hospitalization for extreme dehydration. Further, get plenty of bed rest. If you try to do too much too soon, especially right after the flu, you risk exhausting yourself and becoming sick all over again. Eat a light, healthy diet such as soups, gelatin, and electrolyte drinks during and for a few days after your illness to give your stomach time to adjust to normal eating again.

– Take the Right Medications

If you can identify flu symptoms in time to visit the doctor within 24 to 48 hours of onset, there are medications that can substantially shorten the duration of your illness. However, both colds and the flu are caused by viruses, so there is little you can do once that initial window is closed as far as treating the cause. In that case, you must treat the symptoms and keep your body healthy during your illness. Over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs to reduce fever and body aches as well as vitamin supplements, cough syrup and nasal decongestants can be used. Be sure to follow dosing instructions carefully. Under no circumstances should aspirin be used if you suspect the flu. Aspirin has been associated with Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but often fatal complication of the use of aspirin to treat the flu.

Colds and flu are, unfortunately, a part of life. However, with careful attention to handwashing, regular vaccinations and avoiding contact with sick people, you can avoid most colds and the flu. When you do contract a cold or the flu, take care of yourself by getting plenty of fluids and rest.