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Colds and the flu have so much in common that it can sometimes be hard to tell them apart. Both are caused by viruses that infect your airways. They have some of the same symptoms that can leave you feeling miserable.

There are enough differences, though, that may help you figure out which one you have. That can make a difference in what you do to treat your symptoms and keep it from going around.

Symptoms

It’s true that you can get a cold anytime -- spring, summer or fall, but most likely in winter.  Flu season typically runs from November through March, although you can get the flu in October or as late as May.

You can catch the flu at other times. But symptoms outside of flu season are more likely to be from a cold or an allergy.

Flu symptoms usually come on faster than cold symptoms. Colds may take two or three days to develop. Normally, you start feeling the flu over just two to three hours.

Flu tends to be much worse than a cold.  And the flu, especially in children and among older people, is more likely to lead to serious health problems such as pneumonia and a hospital stay.

Symptom

Cold

Flu

Fever

Rare

Fever between 100 and 102 in most cases;  typically lasts 3-4 days

Chills

Not common

About half of people with flu get them.

Muscle or body aches

Not common. If they do occur, usually mild

Common and often severe

Headaches

Not common

Most cases; may be sudden

Feelings of fatigue, weakness

May occur, generally mild

Moderate to severe fatigue and weakness;  may last up to 2-3 weeks

Cough

Common, generally mild to moderate, usually produces phlegm

Dry cough (no phlegm) that may be severe; may last several weeks

Sneezing and stuffy nose

Common. Stuffy nose may last about a week.

Sometimes

Sore throat

Common

Sometimes

Chest discomfort

Sometimes;  generally mild

Common;  may be severe

Vomiting and diarrhea

Unusual

Not usual; most often in children

 

Rarely, symptoms may not be enough for your doctor to know it's a cold or the flu. Then your doctor may order a test to determine what you have.

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