It is a cold or the flu and why does it matter?

Diane Atwood's husband sipping tea because of a cold

Poor Barry!

A cold

My husband has had a cold for the past 10 days. It started with a runny nose and a little congestion and then he got a lumpy feeling in his throat. For several days he sneezed and sneezed and coughed and coughed.

Overall it was a mild cold and his symptoms are almost gone. He attributes his quick and easy recovery to all the zinc lozenges he sucked on at the first sign. He also sipped an almost daily cup of soothing tea — made with turmeric and pepper (which is supposed to activate the turmeric,) raw active honey and lemons. He plopped in a few thin lemon slices and also squeezed in some juice. You can brew up a cup of tea and add the ingredients or simply add them to hot water.

So far, I have no symptoms. Fingers crossed.

The flu

A few years ago, I took a short nap and woke up with a sore throat and a fever. There wasn’t a place on my body that didn’t ache. I was miserable. Nothing made me feel better the first few days. Nothing. I had the flu.

The major difference in our symptoms was that my husband’s came on gradually. Mine appeared out of nowhere and hit me like a ton of bricks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),

“In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense.”

Flu complications

Most people recover from a cold or the flu within several days or about two weeks, but when it comes to the flu some people are at increased risk for complications.

  • Bronchitis
  • Sinus or ear infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Hospitalization
  • Death

Who is at risk?

  • Young children
  • Adults 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain chronic medical conditions (Chronic lung disease increases risk of pneumonia)

Prevention

What’s the best way to prevent either illness? A yearly flu shot for the flu and for both — hand washing, hand washing, hand washing. And if you’ve got a cough cover it. Same with sneezing. Cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow. I know I’m not your mother, but don’t spread your germs, please and thank you!

Treatment

As for treatment, many people including me and my husband, swear by zinc, but you have to take it when you first notice symptoms. If you’ve got the flu, you can try an anti-viral medication like Tamiflu or Relenza but you have to take it within 48 hours of getting symptoms.

Both illnesses are caused by viruses, so antibiotics won’t work. You’ll need lots of rest and fluids, TLC and chicken soup. You might also need some over the counter medications for symptoms — decongestants, cough medicine, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. Mostly, you just have to let them run their course.

So, is the flu or a cold?

I created this handy Infographic so you can quickly see some of the more common differences between the flu and a common cold. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid both.

Cold or flu Infographic

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.