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Common Cold or the Flu: How to tell the Difference

Higher Education Articles October 25, 2013

The common cold and the flu have a lot in common – both are highly infectious respiratory illnesses that make people miserable, preventing them from working, going to school and interacting with others.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers absent from work due to illness, injury or medical appointment rises drastically during the months of December through March, sometimes doubling summertime absentee rates, and that most of these absences were likely due to seasonal illnesses like common cold flu and other winter ailments.

It is important to know the signs of the common cold or flu – both of these conditions are quite infectious, especially while the patient is experiencing symptoms. While spreading a cold is not necessarily life-threatening, the influenza virus can be fatal to a baby, senior citizen or to someone with a pre-existing condition that makes him vulnerable to infection.

It can be difficult – if not impossible sometimes – to tell the difference between a cold and the flu. While both are the result of a viral infection, a cold and the flu are caused by different kinds of viruses. These viruses produce localized symptoms that make it a little easier to tell a cold from a fever.

Corona viruses cause colds; they travel to the back of the nose and attach to cells there. There are two main types of flu bugs, influenza A and influenza B, which both infects the lungs.

Flu Symptoms

Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly and are severe from the beginning. Symptoms from the flu are often worse than with a cold. The flu causes symptoms such as body aches, fever, extreme fatigue, and dry cough. Influenza does not usually cause a stuffy or runny nose. The flu can result in serious health problems that can land the patient in a hospital, including pneumonia or bacterial infections.

Cold Symptoms

A cold might cause flu-like symptoms, such as the fever and body aches, but these symptoms are not as severe with a cold as they would be with the flu. Someone with a cold typically suffers from a sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose; the flu does not usually cause these upper respiratory problems. Cold symptoms come about more slowly than do flu symptoms. A cold does not usually result in hospitalization, pneumonia or infections.

A doctor is qualified to tell the difference between the common cold and the flu. The doctor may perform a laboratory test in her office that can detect the presence of the influenza virus; there is no such test for the cold virus.

Flu tests reports help community leaders determine the extent of the flu virus each season, helping employers predict how many workers may call in sick. These tests also encourage individuals suffering from infectious diseases like the common cold or flu to stay home and reduce everyone’s risk for exposure.

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