Cold vs. Flu: What’s the difference?

By Nurse Sharon

I often hear students tell me when they return to school after being home sick for 2 days that they had a “little bit of a flu,” but they’re feeling much better now. They report having had a “low-grade fever” of 99.4, for example, and present with obvious sinus congestion and have plenty of energy. Although I cannot diagnose, I gently suggest to them: “It seems like you might be recovering from a cold and thankfully, you didn’t technically have a fever. A fever is any temperature greater than 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” Most kids respond with a droopy lower-jar, a blank stare, and an unsure “okay.” In an attempt to clear up the presence of understandable confusion when distinguishing between the common cold and influenza, I’m here to set the record straight with a little help from our friendly neighborhood CDC.

Cold Symptoms:

  • Gradual onset of symptoms
  • Possible fever
  • Possible mild fatigue and weakness
  • Sneezing, stuffy/runny nose, dry/scratchy throat, and mild cough
  • Possible headache

Flu Symptoms:

  • Sudden onset of symptoms
  • Fever lasting several days (very likely, but not always present)
  • Chills, body aches, fatigue, weakness
  • Possible vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Sore throat
  • Headache

The main difference between a cold and the flu is that the flu is like the cold, but 10 times worse! Usually. Everything is worse – your fever, the onset of symptoms, the duration of the symptoms, your headache, your body aches, your fatigue, etc. If the common cold is a mild annoyance, the flu is like getting punched in the gut! As always, there are exceptions to every rule but generally, these symptoms hold true. It’s important to remember the only way to know for sure if your child has the flu and not just a common cold is to visit their primary care provider (PCP) for evaluation. If you’re thinking your child might have the flu, it’s crucial to take them to see their PCP immediately. Doing so will allow for a more accurate diagnosis and for the administration of antivirals.

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