Is It a Cold, or Is It the Flu?

Each year as the school year hits full swing, we enter what is commonly referred to as cold and flu season. And each year, one pressing question always arises: What is the difference between a cold and the flu? 

To answer this, I find it most helpful to break it down into three simple concepts that, when put together, will help you be well prepared to face whatever viral illnesses may come your way.

Signs and Symptoms

The first and most obvious step: Know the signs and symptoms associated with each illness.

Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made this easy with its cold and flu symptom chart. (See our printable PDF version of this chart below.) 

As you compare the columns, you’ll see that in general the flu strikes more abruptly and causes more intense symptoms, while people with colds more commonly experience milder symptoms such as stuffy or runny noses. Another important difference is that the flu is associated with a much higher risk of complications such as pneumonia.

Easy, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not quite as clear-cut as checking a symptom chart. 

Special Tests

That brings us to the second important concept you need to understand to prepare yourself for the season: You can rarely tell the difference between a cold and the flu based on symptoms alone. This makes sense, given that they’re both caused by viruses.

Take a closer look at the columns and you’ll notice that essentially all of the symptoms can occur with either illness, just with varying degrees of likelihood or severity.

The good news is that special flu tests are available. Just be aware that these tests usually need to be done (and flu medication given, when necessary) in the first few days of the illness. In other words, if the symptoms seem to be stacking up on the flu side of the chart, call your healthcare provider’s office about getting a test.

Flu Shots

So now that you know to pay attention to symptoms and promptly address any concerns of the flu with your doctor, what’s the third and final thing you need to do to prepare yourself and your family? It’s highly recommended that you get your flu shots. 

While knowing what to look for and how to respond if your child becomes ill is important, experts recommend being vaccinated against the flu to protect your family and (hopefully) avoid getting sick from the flu altogether.

Consider keeping the chart on hand for quick reference the next time your little one is feeling under the weather. 

Now you are ready for cold and flu season!

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