Sharing is caring around the holidays—except when it comes to cold and flu germs. As winter sets in, so does the season of cough and colds.  The sounds of sneezing and sniffling may be familiar during the winter months, but how do you know if you or those around you are battling the common cold, or another illness like the flu? While the common cold and the flu are both contagious, respiratory illnesses and have similar symptoms making it challenging to distinguish between the two, they are caused by different viruses and are treated differently. Let’s delve into the characteristics of the cold and flu, helping you understand the differences and offering tips on prevention and management.

Understanding the Common Cold:

The common cold is a viral infection primarily caused by rhinoviruses.  It spreads through respiratory droplets or by touching a surface with the virus and then touching the face.  Cold symptoms will come on gradually, over the course of a few days—you’ll usually know you’re about to start feeling sick. Symptoms are mild and include a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and a sore throat, occasionally accompanied by a low-grade fever. Fevers are rare with colds, but they can happen as well as occasional coughing and chest discomfort. Aches, pains and chills are uncommon with the cold—symptoms usually limit themselves to sinuses and the occasional headache. Colds symptoms are milder than the flu and usually resolve themselves in a few days or are treated with over the counter medications.

Symptoms of the Flu:

Influenza, or the flu, is caused by influenza viruses (types A, B, and rarely C).  It is highly contagious and spreads through respiratory droplets.  While cold symptoms will gradually affect you, flu symptoms will come on abruptly—maybe even overnight. High fever is a major symptom of the flu, but not everyone with the flu will have a fever. Chills, body aches, and fatigues are usual symptoms of the flu, along with occasional vomiting and diarrhea. Dry coughing, sore throats and stuffy noses can sometimes accompany other flu symptoms. The flu is generally severe and can cause serious complications like pneumonia.

Spotting the differences:

Cold symptoms usually develop gradually and last for about a week, whereas, flu symptoms often come on suddenly and may persist for 1-2 weeks.  While a low-grade fever is common with a cold, higher fevers are typical with the flu.  Flu is often associated with intense body aches, which are rare in the common cold.

Who’s at risk?
Anyone can get a cold, and even the flu (even healthy people), but some groups are at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications—including older adults and the elderly, pregnant women, children and people of any age with pre-existing medical conditions. You can get the flu or a cold at any time of the year, but the viruses that cause these illnesses usually do the most damage in the winter months. If you’re diagnosed with the flu, you’ll receive antiviral drugs that can prevent complications, lessen your symptoms and shorten the time that you’re sick.

Managing your symptoms:

Adequate rest and staying hydrated are essential for both cold and flu recovery.  Symptomatic relief can be achieved with over-the-counter medications for both illnesses while antiviral medications may be prescribed for severe cases of the flu.

Prevention Strategies:
Common hygiene practices are always a good idea to prevent the spread of illnesses, but the best way to prevent the flu is to get an annual flu vaccine. Pharmacies will offer these shots at a reduced rate and some organizations may offer them free of charge. The common cold is common for a reason—it’s hard to prevent. Washing your hands frequently, using hand sanitizers, avoiding touching the face, avoiding eating or drinking after others, and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze may be your best line of defense against this wintertime sickness staple.


As winter unfolds, being able to differentiate between the common cold and the flu is key to prompt and effective management. Practicing good hygiene, getting vaccinated, and adopting healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in preventing these winter woes. If symptoms persist or worsen, consulting a healthcare professional is always advisable. Stay healthy and embrace the winter season with preparedness!

For any questions regarding the influenza vaccine please contact OakBend at 281-341-3000 . Remember, vaccines are a valuable resource in safeguarding your health. For more information or to schedule an appointment with any of our providers, call:  281-238-7870 or visit OakBend Medical Group Providers.

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