Flu, a cold, or something else

Mindy wants to know what the difference is between a cold and the flu: “Someone told me he knows he has the flu when he’s sick in the winter if he has a fever.  No fever, it’s just a cold.  So, if my son has a cold in the winter and his fever is 101 or so, does that mean he has the flu?  (or is more likely to have the flu)?  We’ve all had our shots so symptoms will be light this year anyway if it is flu so it’s hard to tell from symptoms.”

The symptoms of influenza really are quite different from a common cold.

The flu starts suddenly, with severe symptoms arising all at once, or within a few hours. A typical fever is 103 or higher (highest I’ve seen is 106.1), and it’s accompanied by chills and shaking. There are body aches, head aches, and belly aches, and sometimes some nausea and vomiting. There may be a cough or sore throat, but these usually aren’t severe. An episode of flu lasts about five days. People who are vaccinated are much less likely to get the flu, and if they do the illness is usually more mild, with lower fevers and a shorter illness.

A cold usually creeps up on you, rather than starting all at once. It begins with a day or so of a vague feeling of unwell, just a feeling that you’re coming down with something. Then a sore throat will begin, and last a few days. During this first few days there may be a fever, though usually not over 102 (children tend to run higher fevers than teens or adults.) After a few days of sore throat the throat gets better while the nose gets more congested, and after the nose is stuffy a cough often begins that can linger for a few weeks.

Just to throw in another common wintertime ailment: strep throat is another sudden-onset illness. The main symptoms are sore throat, which can be very uncomfortable, plus a fever, headache, and belly ache. Runny nose and cough are absent, and flu-like body aches don’t occur.

So: cold symptoms + a fever of 101 is almost certainly just a cold—which can still be unpleasant, but isn’t the flu. Another way of looking at this: people who’ve had the flu, the real flu, will tell you that it’s nothing like a cold. If you’re not sure if it’s the flu or a cold, you’ve probably got a cold. The best advice: wash your hands, get some sleep, and have some nice chicken soup.

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