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How to spot the difference

We’ve all been there. You wake up with a sore throat, then come the aches and congestion that feels like it may cause your head to explode. 

Then starts the great debate. Is it a cold, or something worse like the flu? Should you see your healthcare provider or just stay home and get plenty of rest? 

“While both have similar symptoms, the flu is much more severe and can result in serious health problems,” says Richard Martin, MD, Geisinger family medicine physician. That’s why it’s so important to know the difference between flu and cold symptoms.

With flu season upon us – often spanning from fall until spring - let’s take a look at how to spot the difference and get you on the road to recovery ASAP. 

What are symptoms of a cold?

Cold symptoms come on gradually and are milder than symptoms of the flu. Symptoms commonly include: 

  • Cough 
  • Mild fever (more common in children)
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat 
  • Stuffy nose

Cold symptoms typically last for about a week. However, you’re contagious during the first few days. So it’s important to stay home, get plenty of fluids and be sure to rest!

“Most colds are caused by a virus and antibiotics won’t treat them. It’s best to get plenty of rest, fluids and use over the counter medicines to help manage symptoms,” says Dr. Richard Martin, a family medicine physician at Geisinger Mt. Pleasant in Scranton.

However, if your symptoms last longer than a week, check with your healthcare provider to rule out an allergy or bacterial infection.

What are symptoms of flu?

Flu symptoms are often severe and come on quickly. If you have a fever and body or muscle aches right away, you may have the flu virus. Symptoms commonly include:

  • Aches
  • Chest discomfort, cough
  • Chills
  • Extreme tiredness/fatigue
  • Headache
  • High fever 
  • Sometimes nausea and diarrhea

Most symptoms improve over the course of a few days, but you’ll likely feel run down for a week or so. The flu is caused by the influenza virus which leaves you contagious for a few days, so it’s important to stay home and rest.

If you suspect you or a loved one have the flu, be aware of your risk of developing serious health issues. 

“The flu can lead to serious health problems like pneumonia, especially in the young, elderly, or those with heart or lung problems,” says Dr. Martin.

As with most common colds, antibiotics won’t help your flu symptoms, but getting rest, fluids and using over the counter medicine can help ease your symptoms.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medication. These medications help you feel better sooner and may prevent complications like pneumonia.

When to call your doctor

For most people, having a cold or the flu doesn’t require a trip to the emergency department. Most symptoms resolve after some much-needed rest.

However, you should call your healthcare provider or visit the closest Geisinger Careworks Urgent Care if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away after 2 or 3 weeks, or it comes with shortness of breath
  • A fever lasting more than 3 days
  • Congestion and headache that doesn’t ease up after a week
  • Severe throat pain


How to prevent a cold or flu

To decrease your chances of catching a cold or the flu, remember to wash your hands frequently. Washing with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds (or sing the “happy birthday” song) can help get rid of the germs on your skin.

You should also avoid contact with sick people, and if you become sick, stay home to prevent infecting others.

“The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated every year,” says Dr. Martin. In fact, the CDC recommends that everyone six months or older should get a flu shot every season. While they aren’t guaranteed to stop you from getting sick, they are around 60 percent effective at preventing the flu – and they can be life-saving when it comes to children and at-risk adults.
Sick woman with cold or flu blowing nose

How to get your flu shot

It’s easier than ever to get vaccinated!