Is it a cold or the flu? Prevention, symptoms, and treatments


Viruses that cause a cold or the flu are spread by droplets. This means you can get a cold or the flu from someone who is infected when they cough, sneeze, or talk. You can also get it by touching something that has viruses on it. But how do you know if you have a cold or the flu? And when should you seek medical care.



A cold usually comes on gradually. You may have a stuffy or runny nose and sneezing. You may also have a cough, sore throat, and watery eyes. Usually, a cold lasts only a few days.

The flu usually comes on more suddenly and lasts longer than a cold. It has symptoms similar to a cold, but people also usually have a fever (high body temperature), body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue, and generally feel miserable. Some people, especially children, may also feel nauseated and may vomit.


A cold usually runs its course without the person needing to seek medical care. It is important to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. You also need to drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest.

The flu can be treated the same way as a cold, however, symptoms may last up to 2 weeks. People with a weakened immune system are at higher risk of developing flu-related complications (i.e., children younger than 5 [especially younger than 2], pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions [i.e., diabetes, asthma, heart and lung disease], and people over 65). Some people may need to seek medical care. Your doctor may also prescribe a specific medicine for the flu such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or Xofluza (baloxavir).

For both a cold and the flu, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines can be used to treat symptoms in adults and most children over the age of 2:

• Nasal decongestants help unclog a stuffy nose
• Cough suppressants help relieve coughing
• Expectorants help loosen mucus
• Antihistamines help stop a runny nose, watery eyes, and sneezing
• Pain relievers can help ease fever, headaches, and other minor body aches

Some of these medicines can cause drowsiness and may interact with other medicines you are taking. If you take other medicines, it is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking an OTC medicine. ALWAYS check with your child’s doctor before giving an OTC medicine to your child.


There are a few things you can do to help prevent getting a cold or the flu:

• Wash your hands often. Both a cold and the flu can be prevented by frequently washing your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. Anti-microbial hand gels are also useful, as well as wiping down work areas with disinfecting wipes. Always wash your hands before you prepare food or eat, and after being out in public.
• Limit your exposure to infected people. Avoid visiting people who are sick. Avoid shaking hands or having close contact with individuals who appear sick. Keep newborns away from crowds for the first few months.
• Get vaccinated against the flu. Annual vaccination is recommended for most people, especially those at high risk of developing flu-related complications. The flu vaccine is not recommended for babies under 6 months of age. Note that the flu vaccine will not prevent you from getting a cold.

Advice from FDA is a feature brought to you by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You can find this article and more on FDA’s Consumer Health Information website at: This website features the latest updates on medicines and products regulated by the FDA. Sign up for a free email subscription at:

Created on November 12, 2018

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