Is It a Cold or the Flu?

By Dr. Rob Jones of the TH&ID Medical Expert Panel | 01/20/2016

As the weather gets colder and we spend more time indoors and closer together it is common to see an increase in the number of colds.   There are over 200 different viruses that will produce the “common cold.”   Because they are viruses and not bacteria, an antibiotic is NOT effective in curing the infection which must be cleared by your own immune system.  Children under 6 may experience 6-8 colds a year and adults will get an estimated 2-4 colds per year.  Most people will recover within 7-10 days.

The symptoms of a “cold” usually come on gradually over days and may include:

  • Nasal congestion and/or watery eyes
  • Runny nose(watery at first, but may thicken and turn yellow or green)
  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Mild body aches
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Mild loss of energy/fatigue
  • No or low-grade fever (usually less than 100.4 F or 38 C), occasionally chills
  • Mild headache

How is this different from the actual flu (influenza)? Flu symptoms usually come on very quickly and are usually more severe and include:

  • High fever (greater than 100.4 F or 38 C)
  • Headache
  • Severe muscle and body aches
  • Cough that is worsening
  • Marked feelings of fatigue and exhaustion
  • May have some symptoms like sneezing, nasal congestion and sore throat.

Treatment options to help relieve symptoms:

  • Increase your fluids
  • Avoid irritants such as second hand smoke
  • May use mild analgesics such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but do NOT use ASPIRIN in children.
  • Over the counter decongestants and antihistamines may help with symptoms but do not shorten the infection.
  • Nasal sprays, if used should only be used for a few days.
  • Increasing humidity by using a vaporizer of humidifier may also help if properly maintained.

How can I help prevent getting sick in the first place?

The common cold is spread in two ways:

  1. Through the air when a person who is infected coughs or sneezes
  2. By direct contact with the infected person or items that they have touched.

Here are some suggestions:

  •  Stay away from people who are sick when possible
  • Cover coughs and sneezes using a tissue or cover using your elbow (like a vampire) rather than your hands
  • Regularly wash your hands for 20-30 seconds using soap and water and especially before you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.   Nail bitters beware.
  • If soap and water are not available, you can rinse your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  •  Keep your immune system ready to react by proper rest and nutrition and avoid unnecessary stress when possible.
  • If you or your fellow workers are sick, stay home and avoid exposing others.
  • Don’t share glasses, straws or eating utensils.

Complications of the common colds for which you should probably see your health care provider:

  • Ear infection—suggested by pain in one ear
  • Bacterial throat infections such as “strep throat.”
  • Sinus infections—due to the swelling of the opening of the nasal passages so they cannot drain and symptoms of marked pain and pressure over the forehead, cheeks or between or behind the eyes
  • Asthma exacerbation
  • Pneumonia—increasing shortness of breath, fatigue and fever and often accompanied by a productive cough
  • Other more serious complications may include additional infections due to a weakened immune status.


While there is no vaccination to prevent a common cold, getting an annual influenza vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against the flu. To find a Concentra location nearest you for your annual flu shot, please visit our Location Finder

Remember, when you hear a cough or sneeze, say,“cover that please!”


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.  Consult a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider regarding appropriate treatment.