A Cold vs. The Flu: How to Tell the Difference

The flu is running rampant this season. How do you distinguish it from its less perilous cousin, a cold? Symptoms often overlap, so when should you be concerned?

Sanaz Majd, MD,
Episode #257

Flu Complications

Pneumonia is the top complication of the flu virus. It is also one of the leading causes of death in hospitalized elderly. It can interfere with breathing, and we need oxygen to live. Besides elderly and children, the CDC has a comprehensive list of those people who are most at risk for developing pneumonia, including asthmatics and diabetics.

Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) or pericarditis (the inflammation of the lining of the heart) are also risks of the flu, albeit less common.

When to Be Concerned

So if you or your children have now contracted the flu, when should you be worried? Here are the symptoms you never want to mess with:

  • Any trouble breathing
  • Using chest and abdominal muscles to work harder to breath (called “retractions”)
  • Turning purple or blue (referred to as “cyanosis”)
  • Confusion
  • Inability to lower the fever using OTC meds
  • High fevers
  • Chest pain
  • Signs of dehydration, such as dizziness upon standing or inability to keep fluids down
  • Uncontrollable vomiting

In kids, besides the above, they should be seen right away if they experience:

Any possible risk of the vaccine is minute compared to the risk of the flu and the havoc it wreaks.

  • Irritability to the point of being inconsolable
  • Not easily wakened
  • No tears or urine (signs of dehydration)
  • Rash

Treatment of the Cold or Flu

There is no cure for either—its discovery will surely make some scientist rich one day. Why is it so difficult to find a cure? Because these sneaky viruses mutate rapidly—it’s not easy to attack it when it keeps changing its appearance. You can simply treat the symptoms until the virus has taken its course. Check out my prior article on treatment of viruses.

Oh, and antibiotics don’t touch viruses; they only fight bacteria. Oseltamivir (Tamiflu), an anti-viral medication, can be prescribed for some with the flu. Its effect on the flu virus is modest, possibly diminishing the severity and shortening the duration by one day only. Note that it is not as effective if taken past 48 hours of onset.

Thankfully, there is a vaccine for the flu. Is it perfect? No. And that’s again due to the swift mutation of these devious bugs. When devising the vaccine, scientists extrapolate the most common strains that are headed our way and then create a vaccine to destroy it. Let me tell you, even partial protection against the flu is better than none. Most people who die are not vaccinated.

Knowing what I know and what I’ve seen with what the flu can do, I will share with you that I, my two kids, and my husband—along with every other physician I know—are first in line to get vaccinated in September when the shot is made available. I would never harm my children and wouldn't even for a second hesitate to vaccinate them. Any possible risk of the vaccine is minute compared to the risk of the flu and the havoc it wreaks. It is also the only good way we can halt its spread to others. Think of your elderly grandparents, or the children in your lives. For those of you who tell me that you “just don’t ever get sick,” vaccinating yourself not only protects you, but protects those around you.

Share your ideas and learn more quick and dirty tips with us on the House Call Doctor’s FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest pages! If you learned anything here today, or simply enjoy all-things-medical, you can also listen and subscribe to the House Call Doctor podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider.  Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Image of sick man © Shutterstock


The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.