When you're searching the drugstore aisles for relief from—whatever it is that seems to be dragging you down—you’ll come across endless medications designed for “colds and flus.” But how do you know if you’re suffering from a cold or the flu? People tend to use the terms interchangeably because, although they’re distinct illnesses caused by different viruses, they share many of the same symptoms, which can make it difficult for many people—and even doctors—to distinguish between them. But flus tend to be more severe, and can actually lead to much more serious health problems in vulnerable populations like elderly adults, young children and infants, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions. Here are a few questions to help you determine what you’re battling, and how to get some relief from the irritating and sometimes painful symptoms.
How quickly did your symptoms start?
If you’re really not sure what you’re dealing with, one of the most defining features is just how quickly the symptoms started. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu symptoms come on very suddenly, whereas cold symptoms tend to be much more gradual, typically developing over a 48-hour period. Did it start with a scratchy throat and then spread to your chest or sinuses overnight? It might be a cold. If it hit you out of nowhere, it’s more likely a flu, especially if it was paired with a fever.
Do you have a fever?
The flu doesn’t just strike fast—after an incubation period of a couple of days, it usually starts with a high-grade fever in the 103°F to 104°F range. When you’re suffering from a fever, your first instinct might be to strip down and grab a cool cloth or some ice, but that’s typically not recommended, as it won’t do much more than incite chills. You should dress lightly (even if you’re experiencing chills), apply warm washcloths to your forehead and wrists, and talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your temperature; they may recommend you take an over-the-counter medication. According to Harvard Health Publishing, they also recommend drinking lots of fluids, which won’t just prevent dehydration but will also keep your body cool.
Are you feeling achy?
Severe aches and pains in your arms, legs, and back are usually a good sign you’re battling a flu. It’s not unusual to experience a little stiffness alongside your cold, especially if you’re spending a lot of time lying on the couch, but the muscle soreness is typically more pronounced with an influenza virus, especially if you’re suffering from a fever.
Do you have a sore throat or stuffy nose?
Sometimes a sore throat or stuffy nose is simply a nuisance. But if the virus is serious enough, it can cause a lot of pain when swallowing or make it feel like your head is pounding. Although these symptoms are commonly associated with colds, they may be present with the flu, which means it’s not always easy to distinguish between them. Saline solutions in the form of nasal sprays or drops can help to reduce the swelling in the mucus membranes and loosen the mucus that causes congestion. Although a hot shower or humidifier are common go-tos for congestion, research has also shown that herbal teas can have a short-term demulcent effect, providing relief from inflammation and irritation.
Do you have a sore chest and cough?
Like a stuffy nose and sore throat, chest pain and coughing can be present in both colds and flus, but like many of the symptoms the viruses share, they’re much more common and severe in flus. Regardless of how intense your cough is, there’s a simple solution to soothe your chest and throat. Pick up a jar of honey, which the World Health Organization recommends for relieving coughs. In fact, a 2012 study of 300 children who’d been sick for a week or less found that those who were given honey at bedtime had fewer cough symptoms and slept more soundly than those given a placebo.
No matter what virus you’re dealing with, there are a few key measures that everyone should practice to help boost their immune system, like keeping stress levels low, getting lots of rest and liquids, eating well, maintaining a positive mindset, and taking a chewable Jamieson Cold Fighter chewable tablet to help reduce the symptoms and durations of a cold. To get back to your daily routine—and fast—follow this 24-hour game plan for conquering your cold and flu symptoms.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (September 18, 2018). Cold versus Flu. Retrieved from: CDC website
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (September 18, 2018). Flu Symptoms and Complications. Retrieved from: CDC website
Harvard Health Publishing. (December 4, 2017). Influenza: How to prevent and treat a serious infection. Retrieved from: Harvard Health Edu
Harvard Health Publishing. (April 30, 2018). Fever in adults. Retrieved from: Harvard Health Edu
Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (October 5, 2017). Common colds: Relief for a stuffy nose, cough and sore throat. Retrieved from: NCBI website
Little, P., Stuart, B., Mullee, M., et al. (2016). Effectiveness of steam inhalation and nasal irrigation for chronic or recurrent sinus symptoms in primary care: a pragmatic randomized controlled trial. Canadian Medical Journal Association, 188(13), 940-9.
(2003). Herbal tea helps reduce the pain of acute pharyngitis. British Medical Journal, 327(7417).
Cohen, H. A., Rozen, J., Kristal, H., Laks, Y., et al. (2012). Effect of Honey on Nocturnal Cough and Sleep Quality: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 130(3).
Goldman, R.D. (2014). Honey for treatment of cough in children. Canadian Family Physician, 60(12), 1107–1110.