Cold or Flu: How You Can Tell the Difference

When you got out of bed this morning feeling a bit sluggish and achy, you thought you were probably coming down with a cold. By midday, when you developed chest discomfort, a sore throat, and a cough, your suspicions seemed to be confirmed.

But by the end of the day, as you began experiencing chills, weakness, and fatigue that left you feeling shaky and absolutely awful, you were ready to skip dinner and climb straight into bed. You were also left wondering whether you had a bad cold or something more serious, like the flu.  

Here at CostCare in Missoula, Montana, we see a lot of patients with upper respiratory infections, especially during the cold weather months. It’s not unusual for some people to arrive at our office believing they have a bad cold, only to find out they actually have influenza.

Learn how to tell the difference between a common cold and the flu, and find out why, no matter which one you think you have, it’s always a good idea to seek a proper diagnosis.

Common flu symptoms

The first thing to keep in mind about the flu is that its symptoms tend to come on suddenly and hit hard. For most people, it begins with a moderate-to-high fever that lasts 3-5 days. It also typically causes extreme fatigue that emerges early on and sticks around as the virus runs its course, which may be anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

When you have the flu, you’re likely to experience muscle or body aches, headache, and uncontrollable chills. You may also develop chest discomfort accompanied by a dry, hacking cough. Children who get the flu are more likely to develop gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Although it’s possible to experience nasal congestion, a runny nose, sneezing, or a sore throat with the flu, such symptoms are less common.

Typical cold symptoms

In contrast to the flu, cold viruses typically cause mild symptoms that emerge gradually. Most people who catch a cold can expect to experience a sore throat, a stuffy nose, coughing and sneezing, mild body aches, and low-level fatigue.

The average cold tends to linger for 7-10 days. As the virus runs its course, you can expect your symptoms to subside in much the same way they first appeared — gradually.

Although you’re not likely to develop a high fever when you have a cold, some people do experience a low-grade fever on the first day or two. In most cases, the common cold doesn’t cause exhaustion, chills, major muscle aches, or headache.

The importance of a proper diagnosis

A high fever and extreme fatigue may be hallmark flu symptoms (especially in the midst of flu season), but did you know that not everyone who gets the flu actually develops a fever or feels exhausted? In some cases, mild flu symptoms may even be mistaken for a bad cold.

Because it isn’t always possible to tell whether you have a cold or the flu based on symptoms alone, it’s important to seek a proper diagnosis anytime you believe you may have the flu.

If a rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT) given shortly after the onset of symptoms reveals you do have the flu, starting a course of antiviral medication can shorten your illness or make it milder. Taking antiviral flu medicine also helps reduce your chances of developing pneumonia and other serious complications.


In fact, for people who have a higher risk of complications from the flu — including young children, pregnant women, adults 65 and older, and people with chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes — antiviral flu medications can make the difference between a mild illness or a trip to the emergency room.

How you can avoid the flu all season long

Getting an annual flu vaccination is the first and most important step you can take to protect yourself and your family from the flu. The vaccine, which changes each calendar year, is based on early predictions of which viral strains will be most common in the coming season.

At CostCare, we offer quadrivalent flu shots that cover strains 2A and 2B for adults as well as children ages 5 and up. Making time to get your flu shots by early November can help ensure you and your family have optimal protection throughout the flu season.

Even if you can’t find time in your schedule to come in for a flu shot until late November, December, or even January, don’t worry — it’s really never too late to benefit from this important vaccination.     

Whether you’d like to get your annual flu shot, or you’re currently experiencing flu-like symptoms, the teams at our walk-in clinics are ready and available to help 7 days a week.

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