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How to Know Whether You Have a Cold or the Flu

Sick woman, blowing her nose

The vicious winter lion known as the 2017-18 cold and flu season is claiming victims by the day as Americans struggle to stay on their feet, at work and breathing easy.

What NBC News is calling “the worst flu season in a decade” has already resulted in thousands of hospitalizations, hundreds of deaths, and widespread influenza activity in 49 of 50 states (Hawaii is the only U.S. state to avoid the wrath) and caused $9 billion in lost work productivity.

The most troublesome news: we’ve just started the second half of the sickliest season of the year.

“Hopefully, (fly activity) peaks soon,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said. “Regardless, there is a lot of flu activity happening across the country and likely many more weeks to come.”

The No. 1 question Americans who are weathering sick family members and flu outbreaks at work want to know: How do I know if I have the flu or just a cold?

Cold vs. The Flu-A Difference of Definitions and Health

Remember, the flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Flu can cause mild to severe illness, but also turn deadly.

Flu symptoms hit fast with the delicacy of a sledgehammer – within a matter of hours. Symptoms include fever, feverish chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Children could experience vomiting and diarrhea.

“Flu can get worse very fast,” Campbell said.

For people with pre-existing medical conditions, flu can cause complications that can turn fatal including pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues, multiple organ failure, and worsening asthma and chronic heart disease conditions.

Rapidly progressing breathing trouble and decreased responsiveness are telling signs the flu may have hit you.

In contrast, cold is a slow-moving, slowly developing respiratory headache. Alas, colds, as the CDC notes, generally do not result in serious health problems like pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalizations.

  • Telltale Signs of A Cold: Stuffy nose, mild fatigue, sneezing, sore throat, cough, sinus congestion and ear aches.
  • Telltale Signs of The Flu: Intense fever, headaches, general aches and pains, fatigue, weakness, extreme exhaustion.

Here’s the CDC’s Is “It A Cold Or The Flu” Test Chart:

Signs and Symptoms Inluenza Cold
 Symptoms onset  Abrupt  Gradual
 Fever  Usual  Rare
 Aches  Usual  Slight
 Chills  Fairly Common  Uncommon
 Fatigue, Weakness  Usual  Sometimes
 Sneezing  Sometimes  Common
 Stuffy Nose  Sometimes  Common
 Sore Throat  Sometimes  Common
 Chest Discomfort, Cough  Common  Mild to Moderate
 Headache  Common  Rare

The best way to be certain whether you’re battling a cold or a flu? Go see the experts. Sadly, CDC statistics show that one-third of children who die from the flu pass away before even going to a hospital.

“It’s best to be seen and be seen early (by a doctor),” CDC influenza media officer Angela Campbell told USA Today.

Even with this year’s vaccine’s weakened ability to fight off H3N2 – this season’s strongest and sickliest influenza strain – doctors stress that a vaccine is our best defense against influenza, and it’s never too late in the season to get vaccinated.

Most importantly, health experts, stress, Americans need to be proactive and see a doctor quickly to know what they are battling. As Mike Medwin, who lost his 12-year-old stepson Dylan Winnick to the flu in January in Florida, parents can’t afford to wait, for this year’s influenza onslaught is particularly mericless and brutally quick.

“No indications. No warning. Just common cold,” Mike told CBS News of Dylan’s symptoms before his death. “That’s what’s so scary about it.”