It's often hard to distinguish between a cold or flu virus, but there are some important clues that can help you tell the difference, says Antoinette M. Cheney, DO, of Lone Tree, CO, a spokesperson for the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and faculty member at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Cheney points out that while some cold and flu symptoms are similar—including congestion, headache, and cough—the flu usually makes you feel much worse than a cold causing fever, body aches, and extreme fatigue.

"When you have a cold you may not feel like getting out of bed, while when you have the flu your body tends to ache so bad[ly] you actually can't get out of bed," Cheney explains.

Complications of Cold and Flu Symptoms

Both the flu and a cold can put you at risk for experiencing complications, but they are usually worse with the flu than a cold, she says. For instance, a cold virus can make you more susceptible to getting a sinus infection, which can be a bacterial illness that may (although not always) require antibiotics. On the other hand, the flu can progress into pneumonia, which can be quite dangerous, or even fatal for very young children, the elderly, and people with a compromised immune system.

What to Do About a Cold or the Flu

If you suspect you have the flu, see your doctor. She can perform a test to confirm the diagnosis and then prescribe an anti-viral medication to lessen the duration of the symptoms, although it won't prevent them entirely.

Cold and Flu Treatment

In the meantime, Cheney offers the following cold and flu treatment tips to help ease the worst of your suffering:

  • Take an aspirin or a form of ibuprofen to treat fever and body aches.
  • Use a decongestant and cough medicine to deal with nasal and respiratory congestion.
  • Read the labels of over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, since some contain multiple medicines. You don't want to over-treat yourself.
  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you take prescription medications or have any health concerns that could put you at risk for serious side effects.
  • Use a neti pot or nasal irrigation system to lessen nasal congestion and help drain sinuses.
  • If you have the flu, stay home. This virus can be very contagious.

Always aim to prevent the flu. That's why it's important to get a flu shot every year to help keep you from getting sick. (If you have an egg allergy, speak with your doctor to see if getting the flu shot would be safe for you.) Although some people worry that the vaccine can give them the flu, Cheney says this is a myth.

"You cannot get the flu from a flu shot because the flu shot contains [a] dead virus," she points out. "What can occasionally happen, however, is that when you get the shot, your body poses an immune [system] response that may sometimes temporarily weaken your immune system's resistance to other viruses and bacteria. Therefore, sometimes people get a cold or virus after getting a flu shot and make the association, but that's not the case."

However, Cheney says that it is still possible to get the flu even if you've had a flu shot.

"Many different strains of the flu exist and though the medical community tries to predict what strains will be present during the flu season (and that's what the vaccine is made of), there is always a chance that the strain you are vaccinated with is not the strain that you may get exposed to."

Be Proactive

This makes it essential to protect yourself extra well during cold and flu season. Cheney's recommendations to keep yourself healthy:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Steer clear of sick people

Dr. Cheney notes that if a family member, colleague, or friend you've had close contact with comes down with the flu, ask your doctor for an anti-viral medication to help prevent yourself from falling ill, too.

Dr. Antoinette Cheney reviewed this article.



American Lung Association. "Cold and Flu Guidelines." N.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Antoinette M. Cheney, DO. American Osteopathic Association. Email interview. 11 Dec. 2012.

Jordan Lite. "What's the Difference Between Cold and Flu?" Scientific American. 12 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.