How to know if you have a cold or the flu


(Originally published in the Medavie Blue Cross Health News newsletter)

Do you have a cold? Or perhaps it’s the flu?

The flu (influenza) and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to differentiate between them. Here’s a quick guide to help you tell them apart. 

The common cold

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, more than two hundred different viruses have been identified as possible causes of the common cold. Cold-causing viruses live in our noses and throats and are carried on the droplets we expel when talking, coughing or sneezing. Contrary to popular belief, colds are not very contagious, but require close personal and prolonged contact for the cold virus to spread. Cold symptoms usually persist for two to seven days.

How do I reduce the likelihood of catching a cold?

Canadians can help prevent the spread of the cold by:

  • Washing their hands frequently, especially if in contact with anyone suffering from a cold
  • Keeping their distance from people with colds, especially when they cough or sneeze
  • Eating well-balanced meals, exercising and trying not to get chilled or over-tired

The flu

Influenza, commonly called the ‘flu,’ is a highly contagious viral illness caused by only a select few influenza A and B viruses. That’s why there is a vaccine for influenza and not for the common cold.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, unlike the common cold, the flu is a serious illness that leads to 4,000 to 8,000 deaths each year. The flu lives in the respiratory system and is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, chills, fatigue, severe headache and muscle aches. There is no such thing as the “stomach flu,” although occasionally nausea and vomiting can be symptoms of the virus. Flu symptoms usually persist for two to three weeks.

How do I reduce the likelihood of catching the flu?

Canadians can help prevent the spread of the flu by:

  • Washing their hands frequently
  • Covering sneezes and coughs, preferably with a tissue or shirt sleeve
  • Getting an annual influenza vaccination
  • Taking an antiviral medication to prevent getting the flu if someone with whom they’ve been in contact has been diagnosed with influenza

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