The Main Differences between a Cold and the Flu

Although they're two very similar conditions, there are many differences between a cold and the flu, such as the viruses themselves, diagnoses, and prescribed treatments.
The Main Differences between a Cold and the Flu

Last update: 01 April, 2019

When you feel discomfort in your airways, you might wonder if you’re suffering from a cold or the flu. Both conditions are viral, which means that they spread through viruses. But what are the differences between the two?

Discover the differences between these two very common conditions in this article!

The Causes of a Cold and the Flu

A cold can be caused by more than 200 viruses. However, the cause of the flu is the influenza virus.

When it comes to the different viruses, the WHO has categorized some of the most significant ones into seasonal flu. These viruses can be spread relatively easily since they’re in the environment and any surface, where they can live for up to 24 hours. Likewise, those who are already infected can get others sick by coughing, saliva, and sneezing.

Existing vaccines are typically prescribed for flu types A and B because they’re considered the most virulent strains. Doctors recommend that the vulnerable population get vaccinated once a year before the winter. The elderly, pregnant women, sick people, health workers, and children are considered vulnerable.

The Differences

A cold causes moderate nose and throat discomfort. Meanwhile, the flu can affect the airways in general, but it also causes fatigue and body aches.

A woman with the flu.

As for the weather, people can catch colds at any time of the year, although they’re not as frequent during the summer. However, the flu is usually seasonal and spreads more during the winter.

A Cold or the Flu? The Different Symptoms

The most common symptoms of a cold are nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. You may also have a sore throat and a slight rise in body temperature that doesn’t become a fever (up to 99.5°F).

Flu symptoms include nasal congestion to a lesser degree, throat pain, cough, fatigue (tiredness), muscle pain, headaches, and fever (of over 101°F).

These symptoms are different in terms of severity. Overall, the flu is more exhausting than a cold. However, both can lead to serious health complications.

The Treatment for Each Condition

Doctor trying to prevent the flu.

As both conditions are caused by viruses, the treatment is symptomatic, meaning it only seeks to relieve symptoms. The flu lasts longer than a cold, and there is no treatment to shorten it.

  • These aren’t bacterial processes, meaning that antibiotics shouldn’t be taken except when complications arise and they should always be prescribed by a physician.
  • Self-medication isn’t recommended to prevent them. Only medical staff are qualified to treat these conditions.
  • Treatment includes decongestants, antitussives, antihistamines, expectorants, mucolytics, painkillers, and cold remedies, depending on each case.

How They’re Diagnosed and How Long They Last

Most people don’t know how long these conditions last.

In general, describing your symptoms to your doctor is enough to get diagnosed. At their discretion, they may request blood tests and pharynx secretions,

A common cold may last up to five days from the onset of symptoms, which will manifest progressively. However, the discomfort derived from flu worsens slowly. This condition can last between 7 and 15 days.

If either of the two conditions last longer than expected, you should seek medical attention immediately in order to avoid further complications.

This article may also interest you: Take Propolis at the First Cold and Flu Symptoms

Possible Complications

A woman with a headache due to a cold.

The possible complications of a cold or the flu include otitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis.

These conditions have their own clinical picture, both in how they’re diagnosed and treated. They may come from bacterial infections.

Household Care of a Cold or the Flu

Although only doctors are authorized to prescribe treatment, certain home care measures can help cope with these conditions.

In the strongest stage of a cold or the flu, the following things are important:

  • Physical rest. The body is busy fighting the disease, so it’ll need as much energy as possible.
  • Drink a lot of liquids to help liquefy mucus and relieve congestion in the airways.
    The use of humidifiers is very beneficial because it’s known that a dry environment promotes the growth of bacteria in the airways.
  • As far as personal hygiene is concerned, wash your hands frequently to reduce your risk of contracting a cold or the flu. Also, maintain good overall hygiene.
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