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The Difference Between the flu and the Common Cold

Nursing News… By DeDe Merritt AL Clinical Nurse Manager

Hello everyone! This month’s nursing topic is learning about the differences between the flu and the common cold. This is the season for increased illnesses and the flu could knock you out suddenly like a fighter in a boxing ring, and may take up to a week to get back up. A cold comes on progressively over a few days, and will drag you down, drain you of energy, make you sneeze, have a runny nose, and you feel generally irritated.

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus (A or B). It’s a respiratory illness that affects the chest. The flu is contagious, so it can and does spread rapidly from person to person through contact, or by inhaling airborne particles, by way of coughing and sneezing. This is why it’s important to wash our hands frequently and avoid people we know who have the flu. If you have the flu, please do everyone a favor and stay home indoors until you are no longer contagious (up to seven days after symptoms have emerged).

In healthy adults, and without any complications, the flu usually lasts from three to ten days, but it can be as long as 14 days and possibly longer in the elderly.


You will have some or all of these symptoms:

  • Fever of 101 or higher (but not everyone gets a fever)

  • Feeling feverish/chills, where you have layers of warm clothing/blankets on and still feel like you are freezing in an ice box.

  • Cough

  • Sore throat

  • Runny or stuffy nose, but not always (more common with a cold)

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

  • Some people experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common with children

  • Complications from the flu include pneumonia, sinus and ear infections, and bronchitis.

If you are not feeling well after two weeks, you should visit your doctor to rule out the latter possibilities.


  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Sore throat

  • Sneezing

  • Low-grade fever

  • A cough

  • Persistent or intermittent headache

  • Body aches

  • Some fatigue, but not the flattening kind of fatigue that would be experienced during the flu. You will feel run down as opposed to run over.

This is a major difference to note when it comes to

determining cold vs flu symptoms. The flu will bring on extreme fatigue; just moving will be a chore.

The Flu vs a Cold: Symptoms Chart

Symptom Cold Flu

Fatigue sometimes Yes, moderate to severe

Aches sometimes Yes, and can be quite severe

Sore Throat often rare

Fever sometimes typical

Sneezing and stuffy nose typical rare

Despite our best efforts to try and avoid getting sick, we can improve our chances of dodging those viral bullets by: washing our hands frequently (shaking hands with someone with a cold, or touching something they have touched, will more effectively transfer the virus than if they had coughed on you), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth (rubbing your eyes and face with dirty unwashed hands that may be covered in germs is a surefire way to get a cold. Your eyes have liquid in them, and are a perfect entry point for germs to invade the body. Keep your hands away from your face please! Also, take Vitamin D and C; these vitamins help the immune system respond to viruses and bacteria. So please try to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and to stay as comfortable as possible by taking over the counter pain relief for headaches, body aches, and nasal congestion (for a cold). There’s not much you can do other than to simply wait it out until the virus leaves your system, which can last up to 14 days with the flu and seven days with a cold. For the flu, there are prescription-only anti-viral medications, Tamiflu and Relenza, that can be taken, but they have to be taken within 48 hours of the symptoms presenting themselves. These medications do not cure the flu; they will only minimize its effects and everyone responds differently.

May you all have a blessed Thanksgiving,

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