Influenza, or flu, and the common cold are both viral infections that are virtually similar, but are ultimately caused by different viruses.
The severity of symptoms, treatment options and prevention are the factors that set these two infections apart.
In most cases, the symptoms of the flu are more severe than the common cold.
“Colds generally do not result in serious health problems,” according to the Acute Communicable Disease Control, or ACDC website. “(The) flu can have very serious associated complications, such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening and result in hospitalization or death.”
Cold symptoms usually include a runny nose, mild cough and some body and headaches, while flu symptoms are more intense.
“Flu has a quick onset, so you feel fine at first and then you’re incredibly sick,” said Dr. Bud Lawrence, medical director of the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Emergency Department. “Fevers over 101.4 degrees and chills are more common with the flu. Muscle aches and headaches are also more pronounced.”
If someone has a fever, they should go straight to a doctor and try to treat the sickness. Flu treatment is time-sensitive because there is little an individual can do after having the flu for more than 72 hours, Lawrence said.
Antiviral drugs, which are prescribed, can help treat the flu.
“Medications like Tamiflu treat the flu and the earlier you take it, the more effective it becomes,” said Lawrence. “The duration of the sickness will be shortened. However, after three days of being sick, it is not helpful.”
For the common cold, there is no specific treatment. The treatments that are recommended are meant to relieve the symptoms, but not eliminate the sickness, ACDC says.
There are special tests available that can be done in the first few days of illness to indicate if someone has the flu, according to ACDC.
“Later in the year, if someone comes in with symptoms of the flu, we don’t test and instead we start treating immediately,” said Lawrence.
Unlike the common cold, there is a yearly flu vaccine individuals can receive to help protect themselves from influenza. Taking this step can help lower the chance of catching the illness, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
To protect against the flu and the common cold, try to avoid contact with sick people, wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
If you or someone you know are experiencing flu-like symptoms, it’s advised to go seek a medical professional to test for the flu to start treatment immediately.