How to Tell the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

The flu is serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu (influenza) has caused 9-45 million illnesses each year over the past 10 years that resulted in many hospitalizations with between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths per year. 

Those vulnerable to serious flu complications are usually the very old, very young, and people with compromised immune systems. The flu can be especially concerning when it affects children. But every cough and sniffle doesn’t mean your child is infected. How do you know whether your baby, toddler, or school-ager has the flu or is just suffering from the common cold? Both are respiratory illnesses, but result from different viruses.

If you’re at all concerned about your child’s symptoms, don’t hesitate to call us at Penguin Pediatrics. Our pediatrician, Dr. Umesh Kodu, nurse practitioner Jamie Weis, and the rest of our team are ready to help evaluate your child’s symptoms and offer relief. Read on to learn what indications suggest whether your child has the flu or a cold to help you know when to call us.

Cold and flu symptoms

A cold and the flu can cause similar symptoms. The flu is usually worse than the cold, exhibiting more intense symptoms. Cold symptoms usually develop gradually over time, while the flu hits fast.

The common cold usually causes a runny or stuffy nose, which is less common with the flu. Your child may be sneezing a lot and have a sore throat. However, coughing, sneezing, and throat pain can also be caused by the flu.

The flu usually causes a relatively high fever of 100°F or greater. The fever can last for 3-5 days. If your child is running a fever, call our office to have them evaluated. It’s rare for a cold to cause a fever, and if it does, it’s usually a low-grade one.

Along with a fever, the flu causes aches and chills. These symptoms don’t usually come with a cold. Your child may complain of a headache when they have the flu. Children with the flu may have nausea and vomiting, while the common cold really never causes digestive distress.

The flu can also cause lingering fatigue that lasts a few weeks. Cold symptoms, however, only stay around for about a week.

Why the flu is worrisome

The flu itself has no cure and must run its course. The fear, however, is that it can cause complications, including pneumonia, bacterial infections, and the need for hospitalization.

Most people get over the flu without medical attention. Over-the-counter medications and rest are usually sufficient. This can be different in children, however, who are more vulnerable to complications.

The best way to treat the flu is to prevent it in the first place. Children who are 6 months old and older can get the flu vaccine to protect them from infection. Get this vaccine early in the season, and every year. Strains of the virus morph quickly, so each year’s virus is different and requires the new vaccine for protection.

Flu complications: The warning signs

If you notice any of the following in your child, call us right away:

Flu symptoms can sometimes subside but return with a fever and a serious cough. This can indicate pneumonia or bronchitis which needs medical support. 

If you have concerns that your child has a severe cold or the flu, don’t take chances. Come in to see us at Penguin Pediatrics so we can evaluate your child and monitor them for complications. 

We offer same-day appointments, and we can run tests to provide a definitive diagnosis. Call the office closest to you in either Ashburn or Stone Ridge, Virginia, or book an appointment online now. 

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