Authored by Revere Health

Is it a cold or the flu?

December 1, 2016 | Family MedicineWellness Institute

Is it a cold or the flu?

The flu and cold are both common illnesses during the winter months. You have a stuffy nose, sore throat and your whole body aches — so how do you know if you have the flu or a cold? The symptoms can look very similar and it can be very difficult to accurately diagnose without a test from a doctor.


What are they?

The Common Cold:

The common cold can be caused by one of over 200 different viruses, but 10 to 40 percent of colds are caused by Rhinovirus. Infected people are generally contagious for two to four days and spread the virus by sneezing or coughing. The cold is spread when a healthy person comes in contact with an item that has been infected by a sick person. A healthy person can get sick by touching a doorknob or any other surface a sick person has touched, being near a sick person when they cough or sneeze, or simply touching a sick person.

The Flu:

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. While it can be mild, it has the potential to be much more serious than the common cold. The flu results in over 200,000 hospitalizations annually and has a total economic burden of around 87 billion dollars. The flu is spread in the same way as the cold, but sick individuals are contagious for up to eight days: one day before they show symptoms and 7 days after. This means that the flu can be spread by someone before they even know that they are sick.


Which do you have?

It is not possible to be entirely sure if you have the cold or flu just by looking at your symptoms. Both illnesses can cause sore throats, coughs, headaches and runny or stuffy noses and muscle or body aches. The flu can be much more intense, however, and often includes fatigue and a fever while colds are more commonly associated with sneezing. If you want to know for sure, it is best to visit a doctor who can run a simple flu test.


The Communicable Disease Control and Prevention division of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health has made the following graphic which may help you decide which illness you most likely have. This generalizes the symptoms, but can give you an idea of what you most likely have.  

How to protect yourself

The Cold

On average, American adults have two to three colds per year, with children getting even more, showing that it is almost impossible to totally avoid illness. There are however many ways to lessen your risks of getting sick. The CDC has the following three recommendations:

1. Wash your hands with soap and water

  • Washing your hands for 20 seconds has been called a “do-it-yourself vaccine” . Proper hand washing can remove illness-causing bacteria and viruses from your hands.  

2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands

  • By not touching the areas where viruses are most likely to enter the body you can reduce your risk of getting sick.

3. Stay away from people who are sick

  • A single cold virus can have 16 million offspring within 24 hours. While it can sometimes be difficult to avoid sick family members and co-workers, limiting your time with them and maintaining a distance can have a positive impact.
  • Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York recommends maintaining at least a 15 foot distance between yourself and very sick individuals.  


The Flu

On average, 5 to 20 percent of the American population gets the flu every year. While a smaller portion of the population is infected with the flu compared to the cold, its effects are much more extreme. While it is difficult to get exact numbers on how many deaths are caused by the flu annually, the CDC believes that the average amount of flu related fatalities is somewhere between 3,000 and 49,000. It is important to take steps to protect yourself from this illness by following the following suggestions from the CDC:

1. Get vaccinated

  • While the flu vaccine only protects against the most common strain of the flu, it is the best way to prevent getting sick. A 2014 study showed that children who had the flu vaccine were 74% less likely to be admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit for a flu-related illness than those who did not.
  • Getting the shot not only helps you stay healthy, it also helps those around you. If you are not infected then you cannot spread your illness. 45 percent of Americans received the flu shot during 2012-2013, preventing an estimated 6.6 million flu-related illnesses.
  • The flu shot can be given to anyone 6 months of age or older. While children under 6 months are at high risk, they cannot safely be vaccinated. Instead, their caretakers and those who have regular contact with them should be vaccinated.

2. Prevent the spread of germs

  • Following the advice to prevent the spread of cold germs also applies to flu germs. Washing your hands, not touching your face with dirty hands and staying away from people you know are sick are all good ways to prevent spreading germs.
  • If you think you are sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever has broken. Make sure to use a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw it in the trash after using it.

3. Take flu antiviral drugs if you doctor prescribes them.

  • If you get the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to help make your “illness milder and shorten the time you are sick.”
  • Studies have shown that these drugs are the most effective when taken within two days of becoming sick, so early treatment is important.


If you are sick and in need of care, visiting an urgent care facility is likely your best option. If you are still not getting better after a few days, you may have a more serious condition that needs medical attention such as strep throat or tonsillitis. Revere Health has 12 urgent care clinic locations spread throughout Utah which generally cost about half the price of an ER visit and offer faster, more convenient service. Unlike many doctors offices, urgent care visits do not require an appointment. You can learn more about Revere Health’s urgent care facilities and find the location nearest to you at their website.


Our family practices and 29 medical specialties allow us the opportunity to offer you and your family complete healthcare at any stage of life. Let’s live better




The Live Better Team

Telehealth is not appropriate for every medical concern, so it’s important to ask your provider whether a virtual visit is suitable for your needs.

Learn more about Telehealth

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.