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Do You Have a Cold or the Flu?

Both the cold and the flu cause a runny nose and congestion. Find out how to tell the difference

Many colds have been blamed on the flu. They are both upper respiratory illnesses that cause runny nose and congestion and they both make you feel miserable. There are some differences between the cold and the flu.

The most distinguishing symptom between a cold and the flu is fever. Most colds do not cause fever while the flu usually causes a high fever.

Common symptoms of a cold

  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Sinus pressure

Colds rarely cause fever, but occasionally cause a low grade fever (99-100 degrees F), especially in children. The cold lasts from 5-7 days. If congestion lasts for more than seven days or if you develop a fever after a few days, you may have a sinus infection and need antibiotics.

Common symptoms of the flu

  • Fever (101-104 degrees F)
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Sinus pressure

Flu almost always causes fever which will cause body aches. Some strains of the flu can cause nausea and vomiting. The flu can last from three days to several weeks. The flu can cause complications such as pneumonia which can lead to hospitalization. Your physician can test you for the flu; however flu tests are only 50-70% accurate and may give a false negative (meaning you have the flu but the test does not turn positive). If you experience shortness of breath, you need to see your physician immediately.

Visit this link to help you determine if you should call your doctor

If you already have flu or cold symptoms, it's important to call your doctor if you also have any of the following severe symptoms:

  • Persistent fever: This can be a sign of another bacterial infection that should be treated.
  • Painful swallowing: Although a sore throat from a cold or flu can cause mild discomfort, severe pain could mean strep throat, which requires treatment by a doctor.
  • Persistent coughing: When a cough doesn't go away after two or three weeks, it could be bronchitis, which may need an antibiotic. Postnasal drip or sinusitis can also result in a persistent cough. In addition, asthma is another cause of persistent coughing.
  • Persistent congestion and headaches: When colds and allergies cause congestion and blockage of sinus passages, they can lead to a sinus infection (sinusitis). If you have pain around the eyes and face with thick nasal discharge after a week, you may have a bacterial infection and possibly need an antibiotic. Most sinus infections, however, do not need an antibiotic.

In some cases, you may need to get emergency medical attention right away. In adults, signs of a crisis include:

  • Severe chest pain
  • Severe headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Persistent vomiting

In children, additional signs of an emergency are:

  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Lethargy and failure to interact normally
  • Extreme irritability or distress
  • Symptoms that were improving and then suddenly worsen
  • Fever with a rash