Is It a Cold or the Flu? Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention

Sore throat. Runny nose. Body aches. All are symptoms of the common cold, but they can also be something far more sinister: the dreaded flu. 

These symptoms are no fun for anyone — and they can be especially concerning in children when combined with a fever. But how can you tell if it’s a cold or the flu? 

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How to tell if you have a cold?

Colds come on gradually over the course of a few days and usually cause milder symptoms that can include: 

  • Stuffy/runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Cough
  • Low-grade fever
  • Headaches or body aches

Colds are caused by respiratory viruses and often clear on their own within 7 to 10 days.

In young children, it is not uncommon for them to have 6 to 8 respiratory viruses throughout the season, so it may seem like they are just constantly congested.

The good news is, you can usually treat the common cold with fluids, rest, humidifiers/steam, and sometimes fever-reducing medications.

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How to tell if you have the flu?

The flu usually comes on a bit quicker with more severe symptoms that can include:

  • High fever/chills (although not everyone will experience this)
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Headache/body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fatigue

While there are certain antiviral medications that can be given to help combat the severity of flu symptoms when it’s caught early enough, often care for flu patients includes managing the fever and symptoms at home.

However, it’s a good idea to call the doctor any time your child has a high fever with other accompanying symptoms — especially during flu season.

The only way to get a definite diagnosis is by having a flu test at your doctor or health care provider’s office.

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Flu Prevention

Prevention is key when it comes to the flu, so consider getting vaccinated:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are between 19 and 26 million cases of flu in America between October and April yearly.

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While flu vaccination does not boast 100 percent efficacy, there is evidence, that even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, the symptoms may be milder and the duration of the illness shorter. 

Remember to teach your children good hand-washing habits, and to practice what you preach to minimize the chances of flu invading your home!