OnsetWith a cold, you probably know it is coming a few days ahead of time. You’ll start to get a tickle in the back of your throat, for example, or have to sneeze more than usual. With the flu, you’re sick all of a sudden. You can be totally fine in the morning and miserable in bed by evening.
SymptomsThe symptoms of colds and the flu can overlap, which is why they can be difficult to distinguish. Colds are more likely to include a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat. The flu is more likely to include a fever, body aches, chills, and weakness.
ComplicationsA cold is unlikely to have any long-term side effects or complications for an otherwise-healthy person who gets it. The flu, however, may cause hospitalization or even death in anyone. Young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to get the flu and have complications of the flu, but healthy adults may also catch it. A flu vaccine, or flu shot, can keep you from getting the flu or can reduce its severity if you do get it; the flu shot greatly reduces deaths due to the flu.
PreventionThe basic prevention steps are the same for colds and the flu. Wash your hands frequently, especially before you eat and after you use the restroom. If you don’t have access to a restroom, use hand sanitizer. Avoid people who are ill, and if you are ill stay home. For the flu, getting a flu shot is the most important way you can prevent the flu.
TreatmentFor both illnesses, stay home away from other people, especially people who are more vulnerable like small children, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems. With a cold, there are no specific treatments to help the source of the cold. Drink plenty of fluids, rest, and treat your symptoms with over-the-counter remedies. Antibiotics will not work. With the flu, go to the doctor. Your doctor can give you an anti-viral medication to help shorten the length of time you’re ill and reduce the symptoms, helping prevent serious complications.
To help you out, the CDC has this great infographic to figure out if it is one or the other.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention