The Differences Between A Cold and The Flu

With cold and flu season upon us, and especially with the concern of H1N1 this year, you should know the differences between cold symptoms and flu symptoms… not to mention those of us who might be dealing with allergies at the same time. It’s all so confusing.

The following then, are some great tips from  Martha A. Simpson, D.O., M.B.A., Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (via The Lincoln Journal Inc.) to help determine which might be ailing you.

(The assumption is made, that the patient is a normally healthy individual in the mid spectrum of age, not a small child or the very elderly…)

The Common Cold

The common cold, like the flu, is caused by viral infection whose symptoms may include all or any combination of the following:

  • Nasal stuffiness and/or drainage
  • Sneezing
  • Sore or hoarse throat, cough, chest congestion and fatigue.
  • Colds may cause headache and fever, but most of the time these two symptoms are only associated with flu.
  • Most colds respond well to over-the-counter decongestants or antihistamines and are nearly gone after about a week.


Allergies are not caused by viruses, but by an autoimmune reaction to an allergen. Allergy symptoms can resemble cold symptoms and they might include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy, watery eyes and sneezing.
  • Allergies don’t cause fever, but a cough or sore throat results from post-nasal drainage.
  • Allergies can last for months at a time.
  • Typically, plant allergies peak during certain seasons each year.
  • Dust, food and animal dander allergies can strike any time you are exposed to the allergen.
  • Though allergies are not caused by a viral or bacterial infection, the inflammation caused by allergic reactions can deplete your immune system and make it easier to catch a cold or flu.

Influenza – The ‘Flu’

There are many different ‘flu’ viruses out there. A seasonal flu shot typically only vaccinates against the strains determined to be the highest risk that season. Whether is is a seasonal flu or the H1N1 virus, flu usually begins with:

  • A sudden onset of fever, cough, body aches and headache.
  • There may be other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and congestion, but the first four are almost always present.
  • Body temperature usually exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Coughs are harsh and frequent.
  • Your body usually aches all over, including your head.
  • Most flu cases, both seasonal and H1N1, can be treated at home with rest, over-the-counter pain medication and over-the-counter cough syrup.
  • Flu typically makes you ill for about five days.

If you’re ill, and think your symptoms warrant more than bed rest and home nurturing, please see a health care professional. Be kind to others, and do your part to prevent the spread of your illness to others. Proper handwashing, covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing, not sharing personal items and staying home from work or school are all good practices to help prevent the spread of colds and flu.

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