Cold Or The Flu? How To Tell The Difference Between Symptoms

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Playing Is It a Cold or the Flu? Here's What You Need to Know
Is It a Cold or the Flu? Here's What You Need to Know Aired January 29, 2018

It's that time of year! Flu season is here once more, and with it comes the question everyone is asking: How do you know whether you have the flu, or if it's just a standard cold?

Our friend, Dr. Bojana Jankovic Weatherly, swung into the studio to break it down for us.

"[Colds and the flu] are both caused by different viruses, and they're both upper respiratory infections," says Dr. Bojana.

Both also result in similar symptoms: a runny nose, congestion, a sore throat and a cough.

But while a cold will give you "mild" symptoms, she says, flu symptoms are much more severe.

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"Yes, you may have the runny nose, congestion, a sore throat," says Dr. Bojana, "but it's not as big of a deal. Maybe a mild fever, but that's about it. Not as dramatic."

And yet, even with JUST a cold, keep this in mind!

"We're contagious the first three days of getting it, but… the virus still sheds up to two weeks," says the doc. "So even if you're feeling better, you can still transmit it to other people. So it's really important to be careful around the people you're interacting with."

RELATED: What to Eat When You Have a Cold

Hear that? So make sure to cover your mouth when you cough — and wash those hands!

Now, when it comes to the flu, she says, "it's a different story."

"It involves all of the same symptoms of congestion, sore throat, cough," says Dr. Bojana, "but it typically is accompanied by a high fever. We usually get those terrible body aches. You're typically bed-ridden — it can be awful!"

And while she says that the flu typically lasts about a week, it can go on longer than that.

Family physician and associate professor at Rowan University, Dr. Jen Caudle, agrees that while a cold and the flu share some of the same symptoms because they're both caused by viruses, they are caused by different viruses — and the flu is way worse. 

"For both you can get sneezing and coughing and stuff like that, but [when you have] the flu, you have those things plus muscle aches, you feel like you've been hit by a bus, you've got fevers, you've got chills — and the consequences of the flu can be much more severe," Dr. Jen says.

Oh, and what about symptoms like nausea and vomiting? "People always ask about the stomach flu," Dr. Jen says. "But the stomach flu is just a misnomer. We call it the stomach flu when we get nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It's not really the flu. It's usually some other virus or bug." 

Get more of Dr. Jen's tips for surviving cold and flu season in the video below:

So, when it comes to your symptoms, remember:

COLD SYMPTOMS
Runny Nose
Congestion
Mild Sore Throat
Mild Cough

FLU SYMPTOMS
Runny Nose
Severe Congestion
Severe Sore Throat
Severe Cough
Fever
Body Aches

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's the next important question: When do you know if you need antibiotics?

"When it comes to bacterial infections, oftentimes, I'll have a patient come in and say, 'I've had these symptoms for about a week — do you think I should go on antibiotics?' Typically, the answer is no," Dr. Bojana says — and that's because antibiotics don't work for viruses.

So when is the answer yes? "You might have symptoms of a viral infection, they start to get better, and then they get worse," says the doctor. "This is often an indication that there might be something bacterial going on." And that's when she'll likely prescribe an antibiotic.

But! It's important to note that while antibiotics are helpful under the right circumstances, if you don't need them, then you don't want to take them.

"The reason you don’t want to take antibiotics if you don't need them is because they can lead to multi-drug resistant organisms — and lead to disruption of the gut microbiome," says Dr. Bojana. "And that can lead to not only GI issues, but also inflammatory issues."

Learn even more about cold versus flu symptoms in the video above. Plus, watch the video below for Dr. Bojana's best tips for staying healthy this season.

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