How do you know if you have a cold or the flu?

Prior to the holidays in Harris County, we saw an increase of student absences in schools related to flu-like symptoms (also called influenza like illness) compared to previous flu season. Understanding the difference between having a cold and having the flu can help determine the proper treatment for a faster recovery.  Every flu season is different, and even healthy people can get very sick from the flu and spread it to others. There is no vaccine to prevent colds but there is for the flu.  The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated every year!


The common cold is a contagious upper respiratory infection caused by cold viruses and should not last more than a week.


The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses and can cause mild to severe illness.  Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks.  However, the flu can cause serious or life threatening complications for very young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes.

Signs & Symptoms Flu Cold

*the elderly may not have fever, and not everyone ill with flu will have fever.

(100.4°F and above)

lasts 3-4 days

Headache common rare
General Aches and Pains usual and often severe slight
Chills fairly common uncommon
Fatigue, weakness usual sometimes
Runny or stuffy nose sometimes common
Sneezing sometimes usual
Sore Throat sometimes common
Chest Discomfort common sometimes
Cough can become severe mild to moderate
dry cough

 Cold Treatment

Since colds are caused by a virus, antibiotics will not cure it.  However, if cold symptoms last longer than a week, you should go to the doctor because you could have a bacterial infection that may require antibiotics.  To help you feel better while you are sick, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids (i.e. water, clear juices or broths).  If needed, use a humidifier to soothe dry air passages.

 Flu Treatment

For the flu, there are prescription drugs available that can make your symptoms milder, help you feel better faster, and possibly prevent serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia.  See your healthcare provider if your symptoms get worse, last a long time or include vomiting, high fever, chest pains or coughing with thick, yellow-green mucus.

If you are sick with flu like symptoms, please stay home from school or work until at least 24 hours after your fever goes away (without the use of Tylenol or other fever reducer) in order to avoid making others sick.


Practicing good health habits such as covering your cough, washing your hands often, and staying home when you are sick can help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the cold and flu.

Keep countertops clean, especially when someone in your family is sick, and avoid sharing hand towels.  Clean the areas where the most germs reside like doorknobs, faucets, remote controls, light switches, telephones and mobile devices.  

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated!  It is especially important for the following groups:

  • Individuals with certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic lung disease.
  • Pregnant women
  • Young children
  • Those who are 65 years of age and older.
  • Anyone who lives with or cares for others who are at high risk of developing serious complications.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone who is at least six months of age or older should get the flu vaccine. For the 2017-2018 season, CDC recommends the flu shot instead of the nasal spray flu vaccine.

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)