Back to Health Feed Home

Flu or Cold: Which winter illness is it?

Your throat is sore, you have a stuffy nose and your energy level is virtually zero. Winter is prime time for respiratory illnesses including the common cold and influenza—known as the flu. How can you tell the difference between the two illnesses?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can range from mild to severe, even leading to death in some cases.

“A sudden onset of symptoms is one telltale sign of the flu, which typically develops very quickly,” said Dr. Deborah L. Goldsmith, an infectious disease specialist on the medical staff at Maury Regional Medical Center.

Flu symptoms may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Young children with the flu may also experience nausea and vomiting.

The flu can lead to further health complications including pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Those with chronic health conditions, older adults, pregnant women and young children are at greater risk of flu-related complications. Immediate medical attention should be sought if someone with the flu has difficulty breathing, becomes lethargic or confused or shows signs of dehydration such as not drinking.

Flu vaccine remains the best way to prevent and control influenza.

A sore throat and runny nose are often the first signs of a cold. Those suffering from a cold will typically experience sneezing, a runny nose, sore throat and a cough that is milder than one caused by flu.

"Symptoms of a common cold tend to develop more gradually and are less severe than with the flu," said Dr. Goldsmith.

One of the best ways to stay healthy during cold and flu season is to wash your hands often and thoroughly. Limit exposure to sick people, eat a well-balanced diet, get adequate rest and stay home if you are sick.