Is it a Cold or Is It the Flu?

Colds and the flu have so much in common that it can sometimes be hard to tell them apart. Both are caused by viruses that infect your airways and they share several symptoms. However, there are enough differences that can usually help you figure out which one it is. That can make a difference in what you do to treat the symptoms and prevent complications.

In Cold Versus Flu on the website of the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), we read, “The symptoms of the flu include fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue (tiredness). Cold symptoms are usually milder than the symptoms of flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.” Other symptoms of the common cold are a cough, sore throat and sneezing. While colds generally do not result in serious health problems, for a person age 65 years or older, getting the flu may cause even more serious health problems.

According to the CDC report, What You Should Know and Do this Flu Season If You Are 65 Years and Older, as you age, your immune system weakens. “This makes adults 65 years and older more likely to get the flu. For seniors, the seasonal flu can be very serious, even deadly. Around 70 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people age 65 and older.” The CDC reports that people with certain medical conditions, particularly asthma, diabetes or chronic heart disease, are at a greater risk of complications from the flu, including pneumonia. Even the common cold can become serious in an individual with a weak immune system. Untreated, a cold can lead to sinus infection, a nonstop cough, bronchitis, or an ear infection.


The best way to treat a cold or flu is to not get it in the first place. In the article Stay Healthy:  6 Tips for Avoiding Cold and Flu on the website WebMD, the following suggestions are made to avoid catching a cold or getting the flu this year.

  • Get a flu shot. For those 65 and older, a doctor may also recommend the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia.
  • Wash hands often. It sounds so simple, but soap and water are the constant companions of doctors and nurses. To completely get rid of viruses from your skin, you need to scrub hard for 20 seconds or more. A good way to time yourself is to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while scrubbing the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. It doesn’t matter if the water’s hot or cold — the very act of scrubbing will physically remove the germs.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. If you can’t get to soap and water, sanitizer can kill cold and flu germs.
  • Avoid getting close to people who are sick. For example, don’t shake hands.
  • Keep your surroundings clean. Sanitize doorknobs, light switches and anything else that may become contaminated with germs after being touched by someone with a cold or the flu.
  • Keep up a healthy lifestyle. It’s important to look after your own health, says Ardis Dee Hoven, MD, in the WebMD “Do all the things we all should be doing on a daily basis anyway,” Hoven says. “Get adequate rest – which people underestimate — get good nutrition, don’t smoke, and keep your allergies controlled, because if they’re out of control, then your upper respiratory tree is already inflamed, which sets it up to more easily acquire a virus.”

Other suggestions include wearing gloves and even a face mask when interacting with someone who is ill and not touching your eyes, nose or mouth.


If an older adult comes down with a cold or the flu, it may be necessary for them to see a doctor, particularly if the individual is frail or has another illness. Doctors may prescribe an antiviral medication that is taken once the flu is diagnosed. This medication can decrease symptoms and shorten the illness by a few days. The vaccine can also prevent serious complications such as pneumonia. At-home cold and flu remedies include:

  • Keep warm and get plenty of rest.
  • Drink clear fluids like water, broth or sports drinks to prevent dehydration.
  • Use a cool, damp washcloth on the forehead, arms, and legs to reduce fever and discomfort.
  • Use a humidifier in the bedroom to make breathing easier.
  • Gargle with salt water.

Taking steps to avoid catching a cold or the flu is the best line of defense against getting sick this winter. But when your best efforts fail, the next best thing to do is take it easy and stay home so that others do not become infected as a result.

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