It’s that time of year again. The weather is colder, and now and again, you may start to feel not quite like yourself. You may be tired, achy, congested or nauseous, but can’t figure out if you have a cold, or worse, the flu (or even COVID-19). So, how can you tell the difference?
Cold and flu symptoms can seem very similar as both are respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (the upper respiratory tract). The flu is often more severe and caused by different, stronger viruses. Most people can recover from a cold in seven to ten days, while the flu may take one to two weeks—and if symptoms persist, you may need to see your doctor. Check out the lists below to learn the differences between the symptoms of a cold and the flu.
Symptoms of the flu include:
- Chills or a fever.
- Cough or sore throat.
- Muscle or body aches.
- Runny or stuffy nose.
Symptoms of the common cold include:
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Body aches or headache.
- Low-grade fever.
Many of these symptoms are also related to COVID-19, so if you’re in search of answers, it can also help to get a COVID-19 test.
Ways to avoid getting sick
Cold and flu season can extend as late as May. So, there’s still time to protect yourself and your family against seasonal illnesses with these steps:
- Wash your hands. Germs are quickly spread on commonly touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, phones, elevator buttons, handrails and keyboards. It’s a good idea to wash your hands after touching these items, plus before you handle food and after you use the bathroom. You can further minimize the spread of germs by avoiding contact with your eyes, nose and mouth unless you’ve just washed your hands. Experts recommend using hot, soapy water and lathering your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds—covering the front and back of your hands, your wrists and under your fingernails—then drying them thoroughly. You can also use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. This will ensure they’re spic and span!
- Get your flu shot. This remains the number one way to prevent the flu, according to the CDC. Getting vaccinated now can still help you avoid the flu this season. For more information about the CDC’s flu vaccine recommendations, just visit them online at: www.cdc.gov/flu.
- Social distance if you’re sick. If a loved one comes down with a cold or the flu, they need time and rest to get better. If your spouse or child has a cold or the flu, gently remind them to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, and to avoid contact with commonly touched surfaces in your home. It can also help to frequently clean and sanitize surfaces such as kitchen and bathroom counters, sinks and toilets until your family member is better. If you begin to feel sick while at work, go home as soon as possible.
- Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick. Flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk.
- Get enough rest. Letting yourself get run down is one way to find yourself sick with a cold or the flu, since exhaustion can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to illness. To stay well, be sure to get enough sleep each night. Most people need between six and eight hours.
- Eat healthy. Your immune system needs proper resources in order to function at peak performance. In addition to rest, you also need a healthy, balanced diet and good hydration. Nourishing your body can help you feel stronger and healthier, helping you avoid sickness. You can get started by including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. Lean proteins are built of amino acids and omega-3s, which are a great source of energy and can help you beat fatigue. You can also incorporate superfoods into your diet, such as garlic, ginger, yogurt, dark leafy greens and vitamin C–rich foods. These help your body produce white blood cells to fight off infections and rid you of cold and flu–causing germs and viruses. Eating foods with plenty of nutrients may also reduce symptoms of sickness and the common cold. Please note: consult your doctor or health care professional before altering your diet.
- Stay hydrated. Most people don’t realize they aren’t drinking enough water throughout the day. Water does much more than keep your body hydrated. It also boosts your body’s essential functions, such as kidney filtration, regulation of blood pressure and body temperature, and production of hormones, to name just a few. If you don’t like plain water, try adding fresh fruit, such as berries, pineapple, lemons, oranges and cucumbers to give it some zest.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps relieve stress, improve your mood and increase your energy. When you’re under a lot of stress, your body produces stress hormones that suppress your immune system. Physical activity releases endorphins, which help increase feelings of well-being and improve your energy level. For maximum benefits, try to get 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. If you’re new to exercise, check with your doctor first.
- Clean and disinfect regularly. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. This includes not sharing items such as eating utensils, drinking glasses or fitness equipment.
- Add moisture to the air. While drinking water on a regular basis helps your immune system function properly, using a humidifier to get moisture in the air can also keep you healthy—especially because cold and flu viruses are most active in drier environments. A cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier can add moisture to your home, which might help loosen congestion. Change the water daily, and clean the unit according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Sip warm liquids. Taking in warm liquids is a cold remedy used in many cultures. You may find chicken soup, tea or warm apple juice, to be soothing. And they might ease congestion by increasing mucus flow.
For tips specifically related to COVID-19 prevention, visit the CDC online.
Be the healthiest version of you by strengthening your immune system this season. Following these tips can help your body stay well and lead you to an overall happier, healthier life. To learn more about the flu and the flu shot, just visit www.cdc.gov/flu.
This article is for informational purposes only, and is not meant as medical advice.