Is it the flu or the common cold?

Winter often brings the sniffles, which leads to the perennial question: “Is it a cold or is it the flu?” Influenza and the common cold are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can sometimes be challenging to tell them apart.

Just the facts

The flu can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. About 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu each year nationwide. Older people, young children and people with certain chronic conditions (asthma, heart disease, diabetes, among others) are at increased risk for serious complications, including pneumonia. An estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications last winter, the highest toll in at least four decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu symptoms often appear suddenly and are more intense than those associated with a cold, including a fever higher than 100.5 degrees, extreme exhaustion, severe muscle or body aches, a dry cough and chills. Cold symptoms appear more gradually and may include a stuffy or runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat and cough. The common cold typically doesn’t result in serious illness, such as pneumonia or bacterial infections.

Stay healthy

Getting a flu vaccination each year is the best way to potentially avoid this illness because the virus changes from one season to another. Other ways to stay healthy include washing your hands often for at least 20 seconds and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth to prevent spreading the virus. If you’re sick, stay home until you are fully recovered. The flu is contagious 24 to 48 hours before symptoms appear and five to seven days after becoming sick.