Symptoms and Severity
The primary difference between the flu and the common cold is severity. They can seem similar: both are caused by a virus and can affect the respiratory system, sharing a number of symptoms, including a runny or stuffy nose and sore throat or cough. Both will usually go away on their own. But when you catch one or the other, the distinction can become clear quickly.
The Common Cold
Colds aren’t seasonal — you can catch them any time of the year. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds, so there is no vaccine for prevention. This also makes antiviral medications mostly ineffective. Colds will develop gradually, with mild symptoms over a few days felt mostly in your head and nose, but they will also clear up in a few days. Fevers and fatigue are rare, and appetite is rarely affected. You can treat the common cold best with rest and rehydration, but antihistamines, decongestants and anti-inflammatory medications may help with symptoms.
The flu is seasonal, most often occurring between the fall and spring, peaking in the winter. The flu tends to come from a specific strain of influenza, and therefore flu shots are available to help prevent it. If you do catch the flu, it comes on quickly with a high fever of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The symptoms affect the whole body with severe exhaustion, sometimes characterized by the acronym FACTS: fever, aches, chills, tiredness, sudden. You’ll likely feel fatigue and a loss of appetite that can last for a few weeks. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are sometimes symptoms of the flu, though this is more common in children than adults. Like a cold, fluids and rest are the best treatment for the flu, and decongestants and pain relievers may help relieve symptoms. Prescription-only antiviral medication may be available from a physician.
Flu shots are highly effective in preventing the flu, and everyday measures like washing your hands, sleeping well and drinking lots of water can help protect your body, too.
Should Your Child Stay Home From School?
Whether cold or flu, your child should stay home from school the first few days when the virus is the most contagious. Furthermore, if you child has the flu, the symptoms can be too severe for activities, and you should consider bringing him or her to your family’s physician.
These symptoms may indicate your child is too sick for school:
- Extreme exhaustion
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath
- Severe cough that disrupts activity
- Distracting pain from earache, headache or sore throat
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Download Cold vs. Flu [Infographic]