Do I have a cold or the flu?

Originally Published: March 4, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 27, 2009
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Hi Alice,

I've been wicked sick all week with a really bad runny nose, face pain, cough and now my right ear is hurting. I can't think!! And I am trying to study for exams!!!

My mom told me I have the flu and should go to a doctor to get medicine to treat it. But I think it's just a wicked bad cold. Can you tell me the difference?

Thanks,
Faucet Nose

Dear Faucet Nose,

Sorry you are feeling so awful.

People often wonder if they've got the "common cold," something more serious like influenza ("the flu"), or even pneumonia.

Some important clues to help you tell the difference between a bad cold and the flu

  Cold Flu
Onset Usually comes on kind of gradually, over days or even a week Hits you like a truck; you wake up one morning and you feel awful while yesterday, you were fine
Fever? In adolescents and adults, a cold usually doesn't cause any fever or, if it does, it's low-grade (100 - 101°F). The flu almost always causes high fever (102 - 104°F) that lasts for 3 - 4 days.
Cough? Both a cold and the flu can cause a cough — it's usually pretty mild and not associated with difficulty breathing.
Other Symptoms A cold usually affects just the upper respiratory system: your nose, throat, sinuses, and ears. The flu gets your whole body involved: you feel really achy and weak, you're nauseated, and sometimes you vomit.

If you find you are having trouble breathing, or feel short of breath with normal activity, whether with a cold or the flu, it's time to promptly contact your health care provider.

The flu can be treated with some antiviral medications; a cold can not. Antibiotics don't help with either. If your flu symptoms are less than 48 hours old, if you contact your health care provider, s/he may be able to perform a quick, easy test to diagnose the flu. If you have it, you possibly can get started on treatment. Columbia students can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator to schedule an appointment. 

Because there are many different strains of the flu, it's often helpful to know if there is a version going around.  One of the best resources is the CDC flu page.  Be sure to look under the "What's New" section.  Additionally, you can keep tabs on campus concerns around flu by visiting the Columbia preparedness website.

Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are a few tips to help reduce your flu risk:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Keep your hands away from your face (especially your nose and mouth)
  • Get a seasonal flu shot
  • Cover your mouth/nose when sneezing and coughing (tissue or sleeve, not your hands)
  • Using antibacterial wipes on public equipment like computer keyboards and phones
  • Open rest room doors with a paper towel to keep your hands clean
  • Stay home if you are not feeling well

Feel better soon!

Alice