Knowing the difference between cold and flu symptoms, while not an easy task, is more important than most people realize. This is because the flu more often results in serious side effects and can be treated with antiviral medications if caught early enough. Young children, the elderly and those with heart or lung disorders are especially prone to developing complications from the flu.
Determining whether your symptoms are caused by the flu or a cold is essential. The sooner you figure out what sort of virus you are dealing with, the sooner you can take action to prevent complications. While a cold generally only lasts for a few days, flu symptoms may persist for weeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu may lead to febrile seizures, meningitis, dehydration, pneumonia or other infections and may require hospitalization in some cases.
Cold symptoms typically begin with a sore throat that may be mild or severe. After a day or two, the sore throat improves and nasal symptoms, such as congestion or a runny nose, appear. Nasal secretions begin as a thin and watery discharge, then develop into a thicker and darker discharge several days into the illness. On or about the fifth day, a cough often develops. Fever may or may not be present. Symptoms disappear gradually over the course of a week.
Symptoms of the flu generally begin more suddenly than those of a cold and they are more severe. Flu symptoms include a fever, sore throat, congestion, cough, muscle aches, general soreness, moderate to severe fatigue and headache. While the majority of flu symptoms fade within a week, a cough and fatigue may persist for several weeks. The presence of a fever greater than 100 degrees F is often the first symptom to distinguish the flu from a common cold.
Prevention of both cold and flu symptoms involves careful attention to hygiene and overall health. Frequent hand-washing is the best preventative measure against cold and flu infection. A flu shot is available to help prevent infection by the viruses that cause the flu. Treatment of cold symptoms is usually done at home with over-the-counter medications and air humidifiers. Antiviral drugs may be prescribed to flu sufferers during the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. High-risk patients such as those with asthma may be prescribed antibiotics to help prevent flu complications, but treatment is usually limited to over-the-counter medications, rest and hydration.
Lingering or worsening cold symptoms may be a sign of a developing bacterial infections. Ear infections are a common complication of cold symptoms in children, with sinus infections and bronchitis more often affecting adults. Complications from the flu are generally more serious than those caused by a cold virus. Infants, young children, the elderly and those with heart and lung problems should be monitored closely during a flu infection to identify and treat any complications immediately. The most common complication of the flu is pneumonia, which may be life-threatening. Symptoms of secondary pneumonia include a cough and a fever that returns after a period of normal temperature.