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How to Know if You Have the Flu or a Cold


Sick woman blowing her nose

Think you might have the flu and not just a cold? You’ve probably got some questions – here are answers to nine common questions about a cold vs. the flu, including what causes each and what to know if you have children who catch a particularly bad case of either.

  1. How can you tell if you have the flu or a cold? Although cold and flu symptoms can be similar, the flu packs a bigger wallop and has some distinct symptoms like chills, a higher grade fever and body aches. People with colds are more likely to have a stuffy or runny nose. But only a doctor can tell you for sure.
  2. Is the flu more contagious than a cold? The bad news: They're both pretty contagious. With colds, people are most contagious for the first two to three days, but colds are usually not contagious after the first week. A person with the flu can infect others one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. In both cases, viruses spread by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. To help protect yourself, wash your hands often with soap and water, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. While there is no vaccine for the common cold, there are vaccines that help prevent seasonal flu. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether vaccination is right for you.
  3. How long does the flu last vs. a cold? Well, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two. Cold symptoms can last for up to two weeks. Most people who get the flu feel much better within one or two weeks. It can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Talk to your healthcare provider if your symptoms last longer than 10 days. They may be able to prescribe medicine that can help.
  4. How is the treatment different when treating a cold or the flu? Sadly, the cold and flu just need to run their course. There is no cure for the common cold, but it almost always gets better on its own. Getting plenty of rest and drinking fluids can help. Similarly, most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. If you get sick with flu symptoms, in most cases, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can treat the flu. These drugs work better for treatment the sooner they are started. Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms and whether prescription medicine may be needed.
  5. Does cold weather cause the flu? No, but the flu virus circulates every year from as early as October to as late as May. Also, other factors in the wintertime can contribute to getting sick: We’re stuck inside where the air is dry, making the indoors in winter the perfect habitat for the germs that we get to share. Winter's chill doesn't cause the flu, but the cold, dry air means the flu virus survives longer. But fresh air and Vitamin D from the sunshine are some tips to stay healthy. 
  6. Can the flu shot cause side effects? Yes, minor side effects do occur, but they aren't the scariest of scary. You may have some soreness, redness, swelling at the injection site, low-grade fever or aches. And in the rarest of occasions, life-threatening allergic reactions have been known to occur, so talk to your doctor about any allergy-related questions. If you notice any of the above side effects, contact your doctor. 
  7. Is the nasal flu spray better than the flu shot? No. The two are just different types for different people. The nasal spray is recommended for children ages 2 to 8, and the shot is for those older than 8. But if the nasal spray is not available, then the CDC recommends the shot over not being vaccinated at all—even if there will be some tears. Talk to your healthcare provider about which vaccine is right for you.
  8. When is it safe to go back to work after having the flu? We suggest you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone — without the help of fever-reducers. To help ease symptoms, get plenty of rest, drink clear fluids, and cover up with a warm blanket to calm chills.
  9. What are emergency warnings of flu sickness in a child? Though a sick kid triggers worry in all parents, the CDC says there are seven signs that mean immediate medical attention: fast or labored breathing, bluish skin color, dehydration, being listless or having trouble waking up, irritability (not wanting to be held), flu symptoms that improve, then return with fever and bad cough, and a fever with rash. If you aren't sure, call your child's pediatrician right away if you notice any of these symptoms. 



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©Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. 2019

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