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Flu or cold? How to tell what you have

Photo by Mourner / Vladimir Agafonkin via Flickr Creative commons

As far as infectious indicators go, there are three important symptoms to consider if you suspect a cold might actually be the flu — fever, chills, and body aches. 

This particular melange of feel-baddery is a good place to start assessing since the trio is known to associate with influenza, but not often found consorting with the common cold.

RELATED: Health officials: Flu is widespread in California


Influenza, or flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. 

Unlike a cold, which is caused by different viruses, the flu usually comes on suddenly and may include some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish (however, not everyone with flu will have a fever)
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and the symptoms are more intense. As well, colds generally do not result in serious health problems like pneumonia.

It can be difficult, even impossible, to distinguish between a flu and a cold based solely on symptoms, however. Special tests may be needed within the first few days of the illness to be sure.

Antiviral medications, when taken at the onset of the flu, can sometimes shorten the severity of symptoms and the duration of the illness.


The L.A. Times reports this year's flu shot protects against "two influenza As (an H1N1, an H3N2) and one influenza B, noting "these three strains have predominated among infections this year, so it’s as good a preventive vaccine as can be expected."

If you do get sick after a vaccination, your illness may be less severe, and you’re also likely to “shed” less virus — that is, spread less flu around — than a person who hasn’t had the shot.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report last week pegging the shot's effectiveness rate at about 62 percent.


Officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot, even in places ravaged by outbreak. Locally, we're still bracing for the worst, and the California Department of Public Health has tips on how to handle that.