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Differences Between the Flu and a Cold

Diana Rosenberg, M.D.
Family Medicine, Rush Copley Medical Group

Many people can mistake the common cold for the flu, simply because they become ill during “flu season.” It is true that the flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, however different viruses cause each illness. Both flu and cold viruses are transmitted the same way, but because their symptoms are similar, it can be difficult to distinguish between them. Influenza or “the flu” develops when a flu virus infects your respiratory system, including your nose, throat, bronchial tubes and possibly the lungs. A cold virus commonly infects only your upper respiratory tract. What is referred to as “stomach flu” is actually just another virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting. Primary symptoms of the flu include fever, fatigue, aches, chills and a cough. One important thing to know about flu viruses is how to prevent from passing them on. Here are some things you can do to prevent the spreading of cold and flu viruses:
  • Wash your hands frequently and use alcohol-based gel
  • After you cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your hands, wash them
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth excessively
  • Keep shared surfaces like phones and keyboards clean
  • Avoid crowds during cold and flu season

Tamiflu and the other prescription drugs were developed to cut short a case of the flu. In order to be effective, these drugs must be taken within 48 hours after symptoms are detected. If you are unsure whether your symptoms are the flu or a cold, it is always a good idea to contact your physician.