1. How Severe Are Your Symptoms?
“Both the common cold and influenza can include upper respiratory symptoms such as sinus congestion, runny nose, sore throat and cough, as well as systemic symptoms including fever,” says Clifford Swap, MD, emergency medicine attending at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. However, flu symptoms tend to come on quickly and be more severe than in the common cold.
2. Are You Achy?
You may notice some mild aches and pains with a cold, but not to the degree you feel them if they’re flu symptoms. If you have the flu, your muscles and joints will hurt, often in your head, back, and legs. It could even be painful to move.
3. Are You Feverish?
While you may see the thermometer climb up to 99 or so, it is rare to have a high fever with a cold. Another sign of the flu is you usually—though not always—do see a fever, often in the 100 to 102 range (though that can be higher, especially in young children). Don’t be surprised if the fever lasts several days. Even though it feels awful, remember that fevers are your body’s way of fighting off the infection.
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4. Are You Having Chills and Sweats?
You’ll rarely get chills and sweats with a cold. They are common signs of the flu, however. Sometimes body aches can cause chills. Sometimes a fever can cause chills as well, though the flu may cause chills even without a fever.
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5. Are You Feeling Weak and Fatigued?
Another question to ask yourself when determining if it’s the flu vs cold? Having a cold can sometimes knock you out, or make you feel a little less chipper than usual. But with a cold, that symptom generally only lasts a few days. For the flu, it can last for a few weeks. You’re also much more likely to feel extreme exhaustion with the flu—for example, sleeping for the most of the day—than you are with a cold.
6. How’s Your Tummy?
While not all strains of the virus will give you stomach trouble like vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach cramps, these still might be signs of the flu. If you find yourself running to the toilet, it’s most likely not a cold.
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Think It’s the Flu? Here’s What to Do
If you think you have the flu, what to do next? Hole up until those flu symptoms pass, or make an emergency doctor’s appointment? “If you are not in a high-risk group and your symptoms are mild you do not need to see your doctor or be treated with anti-viral medications,” says Dr. Swap. High-risk groups include young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women, and those with certain other medical conditions. These groups are at an increased risk of developing flu-related complications, like pneumonia. “If however, you are having severe symptoms or are at high risk, consideration should be given to treating with anti-virals [such as Tamiflu or Relenza], as some studies indicate they may shorten duration or severity of symptoms,” Dr. Swap adds. You should also see a doctor if you develop any warning signs. The CDC describes these as including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting, or recurring signs of the flu. For children, a doctor should also be consulted if they are not drinking enough fluids, become dehydrated, or become listless.
And Here’s What Not to Do
If you think it’s the flu, avoid contact with others. Don’t try to power through your day at work, you’ll only risk exposing your co-workers and others you come in contact with. If you must go out, for instance, to see a doctor, wear a face mask. “Influenza is highly contagious, and often debilitating and even deadly. When you feel horrible it may not be foremost on your mind to prevent transmission but it is important nonetheless,” Dr. Swap cautious. And remember, Dr. Swap says, “the best thing you can do to help prevent transmission is get your flu shot!”
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