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Is it a cold or the flu?

Jan 10, 2018
By Jeanne Rupert
Woman in heavy scarf drinking from a mug

It’s winter, and you’re beginning to feel a little run down. There’s a good chance it might be a cold or the flu.

There are many viruses that can cause the common cold or even flu. Fortunately, we have immune systems to handle that threat — typically, we can knock viruses out in a matter of days. However, there can be some flaws in the process.

While common colds can be safely treated at home, influenza (sometimes referred to as “the flu”) can be a bit trickier. In some situations, getting the flu may mean a visit to your primary care provider (PCP). This is especially true if you’re in a higher risk group — people over 65, pregnant woman, young children, and those with certain chronic conditions.

But how do you know when you need to do something more than take it easy? Is there a simple way to identify if it’s a cold or the flu? Here are five key things your PCP looks for to identify what’s ailing you.

  1. Onset — colds usually ramp up gradually; the flu usually hits suddenly, all at once.
  2. Fever — people with the flu usually have a fever for 3-4 days; people with a cold rarely have a fever above 99.5 F.
  3. Body aches — colds may cause mild aches; the flu can cause very prominent body aches.
  4. Cough — a persistent cough from the beginning of the illness is usually associated with the flu; a cough that is mild and combined with nasal drainage is usually from a cold.
  5. Vomiting/diarrhea — these can happen with either a cold or flu, usually more so in kids; if you have severe symptoms in this area, that may indicate a different illness entirely.

And just because we love to share what we know about health, here’s a bonus quiz:  

Q: Can the flu shot give me the flu?   

A: Nope. Not ever. Never!

The flu vaccine contains small pieces of dead flu viruses, which stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies. When you encounter a live, intact virus, your immune system is already primed to knock it out before it can infect you. If you get sick within the few days after receiving a flu shot, it’s because you were already infected before getting the vaccine. If you get sick within two weeks post-flu shot, it’s because your body didn’t have enough time to get the immune response primed.

The solution? Get your vaccine early in the fall so your immune system will have time to get its boxing gloves on and be ready to protect you from the flu. And even if you’re reading this later into flu season, it’s still worthwhile to get your shot to protect yourself — late is better than never!

Still have questions about the flu? Head over to our flu page to find out more.

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Jeanne Rupert

With a focus on osteopathic practices and patient-centered care, Jeanne believes in engaging with all aspects of each patient's life. She builds strong relationships with her patients through open dialogue and working collaboratively to treat existing conditions and promoting positive lifestyle changes. Jeanne keeps herself healthy by walking, biking, and eating a healthy diet. She is an avid reader who enjoys taking in the local art and music scene, and spending time with her friends and family. Jeanne completed her doctorate at Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine, and completed her residency at O'Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio. She is certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.