Cold & Flu

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar flu-like symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.

How can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu?

Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can be carried out, when needed to tell if a person has the flu.

What are the symptoms of the flu versus the symptoms of a cold?

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.

Flu (Influenza)

Getting a Flu Shot

The flu (influenza) is caused by a virus that’s easy to spread. And it can be more dangerous than you think. A flu shot is your best chance to avoid the flu. It’s best to get a flu shot each October or November, before flu season starts. This can be done at your doctor’s office or a health clinic. Drugstores, senior centers, and workplaces often offer flu shots, too. If you have questions about getting a flu shot, ask your healthcare provider.

Flu Facts

  • The flu shot will not give you the flu.
  • The flu is caused by a virus. It can’t be treated with antibiotics.
  • The flu can be life-threatening, especially for people in high-risk groups. About 36,000 people die of complications from the flu each year.
  • Influenza is not the same as a “stomach flu,” the 24-hour bug that causes vomiting and diarrhea. This is most likely due to a GI (gastrointestinal) infection—not the flu.

Flu Symptoms

Flu symptoms tend to come on quickly. Fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and muscle aches are symptoms of the flu. Children may have upset stomach or vomiting, but adults usually don’t. Some symptoms, such as fatigue and cough, can last a few weeks.

How a Flu Shot Protects You

There are many strains (types) of flu viruses. Medical experts predict which 3 strains are most likely to make people sick each year. Flu shots are made from these strains. When you get a flu shot, inactivated (“killed”) flu viruses are injected into your body. These cannot give you the flu. But they do prompt your body to make antibodies to fight these flu strains. If you’re exposed to the same strains later in the flu season, the antibodies will fight off the germs.

Almost anyone can (and should) get a flu shot. But if supplies are limited, these high-risk groups have priority:

  • People over 65
  • Babies 6 months to 23 months
  • Children on long-term aspirin therapy
  • People with chronic health problems (such as diabetes, chronic lung disease, asthma, or heart failure)
  • People receiving certain medical treatments
  • People who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
  • Women who will be pregnant during flu season (winter)
  • Caregivers and household contacts of babies younger than 6 months
  • Healthcare workers
  • People over 50 (if enough is available)
  • People who have contact with high-risk groups (if enough is available)

Who Can’t Get a Flu Shot?

  • Babies younger than 6 months
  • People severely allergic to eggs
  • People who have had bad reactions to flu vaccination (including Guillain-Barré syndrome)
  • A person who has a high fever (the shot can be given after the fever goes away).
When to Call the Doctor

If your child has:

  • Shortness of breath or fast breathing
  • Worsening symptoms, especially after a period of improvement
  • Bluish-tinged skin
  • Trouble waking up or is not alert
  • Fever of 102ºF or higher that doesn’t go away with medication
  • Fever with rash
  • Severe or continued vomiting
  • Signs of dehydration: decreased urination (diapers not as wet as usual); dry mouth; refuses to drink fluids; no tears when crying

 Symptom Flu (Influenza)   Colds
 Fever  Common; typically lasts 3-4 days  Uncommon; if present, typically low-grade
 Chills  Common   Uncommon
 Headache  Very common  Uncommon

 Aches & pains,
muscle aches

 Very common, sometimes severe  Slight to moderate
 Fatigue and weaknes  Moderate to servere  Mild
 Stuffy or runny nose  Common  Very common
 Extreme exhaustion  Very common early on  Extremely rare
 Sneezing  Sometimes  Common
 Sore throat  Common  Common
 Cough  Usually non-productive (dry) cough, moderately servere, lasting 3-7 days.  Hacking, often productive, mild to moderately servere, lasting 3-7 days. Usually responds to cough medications.











It’s most likely NOT the flu if an adult has vomiting or diarrhea for a day or two. This so-called “stomach flu” is probably a GI (gastrointestinal) infection.

When the Infection Gets Worse

Without proper care, a respiratory infection can get worse. This can be very serious. In fact, about 36,000 people die of flu complications each year. If you aren’t getting better, call your healthcare provider. Complications can include:

  • Bronchitis (infection of the airways that leads to shortness of breath and coughing up thick yellow or green mucus)
  • Pneumonia (infection of the lungs in which fluid and mucus settle in the lungs, making breathing difficult)
  • Worsening of chronic conditions such as heart failure, chronic lung disease, asthma, or diabetes
  • Severe dehydration (loss of fluids)
  • Sinus problems
  • Ear infections

How to Protect Yourself

  • Get a Flu Shot
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Wash your hands often. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you don’t have access to soap and water.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Use a tissue or your sleeve. Discard the used tissue immediately.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If at all possible, stay home when you are sick, and keep children home from school and daycare if they are sick.
  • Don't share drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels or toehr pesonal items.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should get a pneumonia vaccination.

Proper Handwashing
  • Use warm water and plenty of soap. Work up a good lather.
  • Clean your whole hand, under your nails, between your fingers, and up your wrists. Wash for at least 10–15 seconds. Don’t just wipe—rub well.
  • Rinse. Let the water run down your fingertips, not up your wrists.
  • In a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.

   Key Facts About Influenza (the Flu) and the Influenza Vaccine (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)  



In Children

Ask your doctor whether your child should have a flu shot or a vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia.
Pneumonia is a term that means lung infection. It can be caused by infection by germs, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Though most children are able to get better at home with treatment from their doctor, pneumonia can be very serious and can require hospitalization. Untreated pneumonia can lead to serious illness and even death. So it is important for a child with pneumonia to get treatment.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

Pneumonia is caused by an infection that spreads to the lungs. The child often begins with symptoms of a cold or sore throat. Symptoms then get worse as pneumonia develops. Symptoms vary widely, but often include:

  • Fever, chills
  • Cough (either dry or producing thick phlegm)
  • Wheezing or fast breathing
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Chest may pull in (retract) as your child breathes
  • Bacterial pneumonia tends to come on quickly and have a higher fever (often 104.0)
  • Children with viral pneumonia may have a cough, wheezing, or a high-pitched raspy sound or harsh crowing sounds (stridor) when they breathe
  • Sometimes it may hurt to breathe
  • Any child with cold or flu symptoms that don’t seem to be getting better should be checked by a doctor.
Treating Pneumonia

Bacterial pneumonia: If the cause of the infection is found to be a bacteria, antibiotics will be prescribed. Your child should start to feel better within 24–48 hours of starting this medication. It is very important that the child finish ALL of the antibiotic medication, even if he or she feels better.

Viral pneumonia: Antibiotics will not help viral pneumonia. This infection will go away on its own. To help your child feel more comfortable, your doctor may suggest medication for the child’s symptoms.

Follow any instructions your doctor gives you for treating your child’s illness. A very sick child may need to be admitted to the hospital for a short time. In the hospital, the child can be made comfortable and may be given fluids and oxygen.

Helping Your Child Feel Better

If your doctor feels it is safe to treat the child at home, do the following to help him feel more comfortable and get better faster:

  • Keep the child quiet and be sure he or she gets plenty of rest.
  • Feed your child plenty of clear, room-temperature fluids, such as water or apple juice.
  • To keep an infant’s nose clear, use a rubber bulb suction device to remove any mucus (sticky fluid).
  • Elevate your child’s head slightly with pillows to make breathing easier.
  • Don’t allow anyone to smoke in the house.
  • Treat a fever and aches and pains with children’s acetaminophen. DO NOT give a child aspirin.
  • Do not use cough medicine unless your doctor recommends it.  Coughing helps your child clear their lungs.  Cough syrup to stop the cough is not given to children with pneumonia.  The infectious secretions need to be coughed up.  Giving your child warm liquids often relaxes the airway and loosens the secretions.
When to Call the Doctor

Any time you see signs of distress in your child, including:

  • Harsh, persistent, or wheezy cough.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Severe headache.
  • Fever over 102°F.



© 2005 The StayWell Company, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care provider's instructions.