Tips to tell difference between flu and colds


Robert Thomas, former Information Specialist, Cooperative Media Group, University of Missouri Extension

The flu season has many people worried about coming down with illness. However, it is a good idea to run through a checklist of symptoms to be sure that what’s bugging you is the flu and not a common cold or bacterial pneumonia.

“The common cold, the flu and pneumonia can have similar symptoms. The viruses and bacteria that cause these illnesses are around all year. People are more likely to be exposed in winter because they spend more time inside and in closer contact with each other,” said Gail Carlson, former University of Missouri state health education specialist.

It is sometimes difficult to know when a minor illness has become something more serious and requires a visit to your health care provider.

A cold almost always starts with a scratchy throat and stuffy nose. Within a few hours other symptoms appear — sneezing, a mild sore throat, sometimes a minor headache and coughing.

Runny noses are a common feature of colds. On the other hand, fevers are not very common in adults with colds. Fever may occur in small children, but it usually doesn’t rise above 103° F, Carlson said.

When someone has the flu, symptoms start suddenly and include headache, sore throat, dry cough, runny nose, muscle aches, tiredness, weakness and high fever (102-104° F). Children may experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is not common in adults. Adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after getting sick.

“Antibiotics won’t help when you have a cold or flu. When you have a cold, try home treatments: get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, use a humidifier to add moisture to the home and if you choose, take an over-the-counter medication to relieve the symptoms,” she said.

For more information about symptoms of the flu and pneumonia, and the best ways to prevent these illnesses, view the full version of this article at


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