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Sneezing woman and a microscopic view of the influenza virus

Colds and the Flu

Colds and Flu

Colds and flu are caused by viruses. Flu is short for "influenza." True flu is a virus that affects your upper respiratory and lower system – your nose, throat, breathing tube, and lungs. "Stomach flu" is upset stomach and diarrhea caused by a virus in the stomach and intestines. This is not true flu or influenza.

Flu symptoms come on suddenly and affect the body all over. Cold symptoms mostly affect you above the neck. A cold typically goes away in 10-14 days with or without treatment.

How Do I Know If I Have the Flu?

Flu generally strikes 1 to 3 days after exposure to the virus. The onset of flu often seems sudden: people describe feeling like they've "been hit by a truck." Common flu symptoms include sudden onset, fever and chills, cough, muscle and joint pain, headache, fatigue and weakness. Some people also get a stuffy nose and sore throat.

Differentiating Between the Flu and a Cold

Both the flu and a cold are viral infections and can cause symptoms such as coughing and sore throat. A cold is a minor viral infection of the nose and throat. The flu, however, is usually more severe, with higher fevers and the addition of aches and pains.

Signs and Symptoms Flu Cold

Fever, chills

Usual; can be a high fever

Low fever, if any




General aches and pains

Usual; often severe; affect the body all over

Mild, if any

Fatigue, weakness

Can last up to 2 to 3 weeks

Mild , if any

Runny, stuffy nose






Sore throat




Common; can be come severe

Mild to moderate; hacking cough

Extreme exhaustion

Early and prominent


Chest discomfort


Mild to moderate

Myalgia (muscle aches and pains)

Usual; often severe


What Should I Do If I Get the Flu?

Rest is important to help you get better. Plus if you stay home, there's less risk that you'll give the flu to other people. Flu continues to be contagious for 3 or 4 days after symptoms appear. You should also drink plenty of fluids. Hot liquids may relieve the feeling of congestion. A pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, can be taken for aches and fever. Doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, which must be taken within 1 to 2 days of the time the first symptoms appear, to reduce the duration of fever and other flu-related symptoms. Antibiotics are not indicated unless there is a secondary bacterial infection.

Ways to treat your cold/flu symptoms

  • Stay home and rest, especially while you have a fever.

  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke, which can make cold symptoms worse.

  • Drink plenty of fluids like water, fruit juices and clear soups. Fluids help loosen mucus. Fluids are also important if you have a fever because fever can dry up your body's fluids, which can lead to dehydration.

  • Do not drink alcohol.

  • Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day to relieve a sore throat. Throat sprays or lozenges may also help relieve the pain.

  • Use saline (salt water) nose drops to help loosen mucus and moisten the tender skin in your nose.

Should I Take Medicine For a Cold or the Flu?

No medicine can cure a cold or the flu. Medicine can, however, help relieve your cold/flu symptoms. Please look at the guidelines for self-care for some of the over-the-counter cold/flu medicines.

What About Prescription Medicine For the Flu?

Some prescription medicines can relieve flu symptoms. These medicines may help reduce the severity of symptoms if they are started soon after you begin to get sick. These medicines come as pills or as an inhaler. The inhaled type may cause problem for some people with asthma.


  • Wash your hands often. Keep them away from your nose, eyes, and mouth.

  • Try not to touch people or their things when they have a cold or the flu.

  • Get regular exercise. Eat well.

  • Get adequate rest. Plan this in your busy schedule.

  • Get a flu shot each fall if you have chronic illness, like asthma, or other lung diseases, heart diseases, or diabetes.

Should I Call My Doctor?

In most cases, you don't need to see your doctor when you have a cold or the flu. However, if you have any of the symptoms below, seek medical advice.

  • A cold that lasts for more than 10 days
  • Earache or drainage from your ear
  • Severe pain in your face or forehead
  • Temperature above 102° F
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness, sore throat or a cough that won't go away

Guidelines for Self-Care

Please look at the Guidelines for Self-Care for some of the over-the-counter cold/flu medicines.

Additional Resources