Is it Influenza, or is it a Common Cold?

Is it Influenza, or is it a Common Cold?

Recognizing the differences between influenza and the common cold can help us manage these viruses and their symptoms more effectively.

Influenza or the common cold?—That is the question.

As the seasons change, so does the risk of respiratory infections. Influenza and common cold symptoms can be very similar, leaving many to wonder which illness they are experiencing.

Distinguishing characteristics.

A medical test is the only accurate method to determine whether or not you have a common cold or influenza. However, going to the doctor every time you get a headache and sniffles is often impractical and costly.

Following is a list of characteristics shared by the common cold and influenza, with a short description of how they often differ:

Common cold symptoms and characteristics.

The common cold is a contagious respiratory illness primarily caused by rhinoviruses. Like influenza, it is a viral infection but tends to be less severe than influenza. Characteristics of the common cold include:

  1. Onset: Typically Gradual. Cold symptoms usually develop slowly over a day or two. You might notice a developing scratchy throat, sneezing, or a runny or stuffy nose.
  2. Fever: Mild or None at All. Fevers with the common cold are usually low-grade, if present at all.
  3. Fatigue: While you might feel tired, the common cold generally doesn't lead to the extreme fatigue associated with influenza.
  4. Duration: Illnesses caused by the common cold are short-lived. Symptoms usually develop and gradually improve over the coming week.
  5. Complications: The common cold rarely leads to additional complications, though in some cases, it can exacerbate underlying or chronic health conditions.

Flu symptoms and characteristics.

Influenza is also a viral respiratory infection. However, it is often more severe than the common cold, and its symptoms differ in the following ways:

  1. Onset: Typically Sudden. Flu symptoms often come on much more rapidly and are noticeable within hours. You might experience a high fever, body aches, fatigue, and chills.
  2. Fever: Elevated. Fevers with influenza are usually high, often exceeding 100°, and can last several days.
  3. Fatigue: Influenza is notorious for causing extreme fatigue that can persist for a week or more.
  4. Muscle Aches: Intense muscle aches and generalized body discomfort are typical with influenza.
  5. Duration: Influenza symptoms begin with a more intense onset and are often prolonged, lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks.
  6. Complications: Influenza can lead to complications like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can require hospitalization. Influenza can be especially threatening for infants and very young children, those over 65, and individuals who have chronic health conditions or are immunocompromised.

Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Illness prevention involves reducing your risk of exposure and infection, taking care of yourself, and practicing good health hygiene.

Prevention of both influenza and the common cold comes down to reducing your risk of infection. Include the following practices to help prevent these and other respiratory illnesses:

  1. Avoid close contact with individuals who are ill or display symptoms of illness.
  2. Wash your hands frequently.
  3. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  4. Maintain your general health and well-being with a balanced diet, adequate rest, exercise, and proper hydration.
  5. If possible, get an influenza vaccination each year.

It may be wise for you to contact your healthcare provider if your illness has lasted more than a few days, or you begin to experience symptoms of influenza.

As mentioned previously, medical testing is the only definitive way to diagnose influenza. Rapid influenza tests can be conducted in the physician’s office, producing results within minutes.

When you contact your healthcare provider, tell them what you are experiencing, especially if you are currently ill. They will advise you as to whether or not you should come into the office.

Management of influenza and the common cold typically involves rest, hydration, and medications (over the counter and/ or by prescription) to alleviate symptoms.

Antiviral drugs may be prescribed for influenza, especially in severe cases or for those at risk of complications.

Prescription antivirals for influenza are most effective when administered early in the illness. Therefore, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if your symptoms are not going away or worsening.

The best offense is a good defense.
While influenza and the common cold share some similar symptoms, they differ in severity and onset.

If you suspect you have influenza or a worsening common cold, don’t delay contacting your healthcare provider. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve your recovery and well-being.

Above all, reducing your risk of illness protects you and everyone around you.

For more information or to schedule a vaccine appointment, contact the Moultrie County Health Department.

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