When you wake up sneezing, coughing, and have that achy, fever, can’t move a muscle feeling, how do you know whether you have cold or flu symptoms?
It’s important to know the difference between cold and flu symptoms. A cold is a milder respiratory illness than the flu. While cold symptoms can make you feel bad for a few days, flu symptoms can make you feel quite ill for a few days to weeks. The flu can also result in serious health problems such as pneumonia and even hospitalizations or in extreme cases death.
What are common cold symptoms?
Cold symptoms usually begin with a sore throat, which usually goes away after a day or two. Nasal symptoms, runny nose, and congestion follow, along with a cough by the fourth and fifth days. Fever is uncommon in adults, but a slight fever is possible. Children are more likely to have a fever with a cold.
With cold symptoms, your nose teems with watery nasal secretions for the first few days. Later, these become thicker and darker. Dark mucus is natural and does not usually mean you have developed a bacterial infection, such as a sinus infection.
Several hundred different viruses may cause your cold symptoms.
How long do cold symptoms last?
Cold symptoms usually last for about a week. During the first three days that you have cold symptoms, you are contagious. This means you can pass the cold to others, so stay home and get some much-needed rest.
If cold symptoms do not seem to be improving after a week, you may have a bacterial infection, which means you may need antibiotics.
Sometimes you may mistake cold symptoms for allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or a sinus infection. If your cold symptoms begin quickly and are improving after a week, then it is usually a cold, not allergy. If your cold symptoms do not seem to be getting better after a week, check with your doctor to see if you have developed an allergy or sinusitis.
What are common flu symptoms?
Flu symptoms are usually more severe than cold symptoms and come on quickly. Flu symptoms include sore throat, fever, headache, muscle aches and soreness, congestion, and cough. The flu is caused by a variety of influenza viruses.
Most flu symptoms gradually improve over two to five days, but it’s not uncommon to feel run down for a week or more. A common complication of the flu is pneumonia, particularly in the young, elderly, or people with lung or heart problems. If you notice shortness of breath, you should let your doctor know. Another common sign of pneumonia is fever that comes back after having been gone for a day or two.
Just like cold viruses, flu viruses enter your body through the mucous membranes of your nose, eyes, or mouth. Every time you touch your hand to one of these areas, you could be infecting yourself with a virus, which makes it very important to keep your hands germ-free with frequent washing to prevent both flu and cold symptoms.
Is it flu or cold symptoms?
How do you know if you have flu or cold symptoms? Take your temperature, say many experts. Flu symptoms often mimic cold symptoms with nasal congestion, cough, aches, and malaise. But a common cold rarely has symptoms of fever above 101 degrees F.
With flu symptoms, you will probably have a fever initially with the flu virus and you will feel miserable. Body and muscle aches are also more common with the flu. This table can help determine if you have cold or flu symptoms.
Sometimes, usually mild
Usual; high (100-102 F; occasionally higher, especially in young children); lasts 3 to 4 days
General Aches, Pains
Usual; often severe
Usual; can last 2 to 3 weeks
Usual; at the beginning of the illness
Chest Discomfort, Cough
Mild to moderate; hacking cough
Common; can become severe
Sinus congestion; middle ear infection
Sinusitis, bronchitis, ear infection, pneumonia; can be life-threatening
Wash your hands often; avoid close contact with anyone with a cold
Annual flu shot; antiviral medicine – see your doctor
Antihistamines; decongestants; anti-inflammatory medicines
Antihistamines, decongestants, analgesics (ibuprofen, acetaminophen); antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours of symptoms; call your doctor for more information on treatment.
When do I call the doctor with flu or cold symptoms?
If you have flu or cold symptoms, it’s important to call your doctor if you have any of the following severe symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or chest pain: These could be signs of more serious problems, including pneumonia, asthma, or even a heart problem.
- Persistent fever: This can be a sign of another bacterial infection that should be treated.
- Severe headache: This could indicate meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain.
- Vomiting or inability to keep fluids down: If you are vomiting frequently, you may be at serious risk of dehydration, which means there isn’t enough fluid in your body to get blood to your organs.
- 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. Asthma medications such as steroids, anti-inflammatory medications, and bronchodilators are necessary to treat asthma.
- Persistent congestion and headaches: When colds and allergies cause congestion and blockage of sinus passages, they can lead to sinus infection. If you have pain around the eyes and face with thick nasal discharge after a week, you may have a bacterial infection and need an antibiotic.
Can I prevent flu or cold symptoms?
The most important prevention measure for both flu and cold is frequent hand washing. Hand washing by rubbing the hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds helps to slough germs off the skin.
In addition to hand washing to prevent flu or cold symptoms, you can also get a flu shot to prevent influenza. Flu activity in the United States generally peaks between late December and early March, so the CDC recommends getting a flu shot in October or November. Within two weeks of getting a flu shot, antibodies develop in your body and provide protection against flu symptoms.
If you do get flu symptoms, call your doctor. If you take prescription antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms, the medications may help shorten recovery time. Antivirals may also help prevent the flu if you have been exposed to someone with flu symptoms.
12 Natural Remedies For Colds
Are cold symptoms making you feel miserable? Here are 12 cold remedies you can use right now – at home – to feel better.
Cold Remedy #1: Drink plenty of fluids to help break up your congestion. Drinking water or juice will prevent dehydration and keep your throat moist. You should drink at least 8 to 10 eight-ounce glasses of water daily. Include fluids such as water, sports drinks, herbal teas, fruit drinks, or ginger ale. Your mother’s chicken soup might help too! (Avoid cola, coffee, and other drinks with caffeine because it acts like a diuretic and may dehydrate you.)
Cold Remedy #2: Inhale steam to ease your congestion and drippy nose. Hold your head over a pot of boiling water and breathe through your nose. Be careful. If the steam burns your nose, breathe in more slowly. You can buy a humidifier, but the steam will be the same as the water on the stove. Moisture from a hot shower with the door closed, saline nasal spray, or a room humidifier is just as helpful to ease congestion.
Cold Remedy #3: Blow your nose often, but do it the proper way. It’s important to blow your nose regularly when you have a cold rather than sniffling mucus back into your head. But when you blow hard, pressure can carry germ-carrying phlegm back into your ear passages, causing earache. The best way to blow your nose is to press a finger over one nostril while you blow gently to clear the other.
Cold Remedy #4: Use saline nasal sprays or make your own salt water rinse to irrigate your nose. Salt-water rinsing helps break nasal congestion while also removing virus particles and bacteria from your nose. Here’s a popular recipe:
Mix 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water. Fill a bulb syringe with this mixture (or use a Neti pot, available at most health foods stores). Lean your head over a basin, and using the bulb syringe, gently squirt the salt water into your nose.
Hold one nostril closed by applying light finger pressure while squirting the salt mixture into the other nostril. Let it drain. Repeat 2-3 times, and then treat the other nostril.
Cold Remedy #5: Stay warm and rested. Staying warm and resting when you first come down with a cold or the flu helps your body direct its energy toward the immune battle. This battle taxes the body. So give it a little help by lying down under a blanket to stay warm if necessary.
Cold Remedy #6: Gargle with warm salt water. Gargling can moisten a sore or scratchy throat and bring temporary relief. Try a teaspoon of salt dissolved in warm water four times daily. To reduce the tickle in your throat, try an astringent gargle – such as tea that contains tannin – to tighten the membranes.
Or use a thick, viscous gargle made with honey, popular in folk medicine. Steep one tablespoon of raspberry leaves or lemon juice in two cups of hot water; mix with one teaspoon of honey. Let the mixture cool to room temperature before gargling.
Cold Remedy #7: Drink hot liquids. Hot liquids relieve nasal congestion, prevent dehydration, and soothe the uncomfortably inflamed membranes that line your nose and throat. If you’re so congested you can’t sleep at night, try a hot toddy, an age-old remedy.
Make a cup of hot herbal tea. Add one teaspoon of honey and 1 small shot (about 1 ounce) of whiskey or bourbon if you wish. Limit yourself to one. Too much alcohol inflames those membranes and is counterproductive.
Cold Remedy #8: Take a steamy shower. Steamy showers moisturize your nasal passages and relax you. If you’re dizzy from the flu, run a steamy shower while you sit on a chair nearby and take a sponge bath.
Cold Remedy #9: Try a small dab of mentholated salve under your nose to help open breathing passages and help restore the irritated skin at the base of the nose. Menthol, eucalyptus, and camphor all have mild numbing ingredients that may help relieve the pain of a nose rubbed raw.
Cold Remedy #10: Apply hot packs around your congested sinuses. You can buy reusable hot packs at a drugstore. Or make your own. Take a damp washcloth and heat it for 30 seconds in a microwave. (Test the temperature first to make sure it’s right for you.)
Cold Remedy #11: Sleep with an extra pillow under your head. This will help relieve congested nasal passages. If the angle is too awkward, try placing the pillows between the mattress and the box springs to create a more gradual slope.
Zinc: While early studies showed that zinc could help fight off a cold more quickly, the latest consensus seems to be that zinc has a minimal benefit at best.
Echinacea: While echinacea was once a very popular cold remedy, the latest science indicates that it does not appear to prevent colds and is not an effective treatment. Researchers are continuing to study echinacea’s effects on respiratory infections to determine if there is some benefit.
Vitamin C: What about vitamin C? A recent survey of 65 years’ worth of studies found limited benefit. The researchers found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds. However, they did find evidence that vitamin C may shorten how long you suffer from a cold. One large study found that people who took a vitamin C megadose — 8 grams on the first day of a cold — shortened the duration of their colds.