Flu Versus Cold: Get the Facts

Now is the season when flu and cold viruses circulate — and most people fall ill at least once or twice. Learn how to recognize flu symptoms — and how best to protect you and your family.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

Flu Vs. Cold FAQ

Q. Is the stomach flu the same thing as influenza?

A. No. The flu is a respiratory virus that attacks the lungs. The cause of the stomach flu is a virus that targets the digestive system, making it difficult to keep food down. Common symptoms are vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea.

Sometimes people can feel tired and develop a fever. It’s important to stay hydrated since vomiting and diarrhea cause the body loses liquids rapidly. Plus, nausea and stomach pain may cause you to consume less fluid than usual.

Q. Do you have to have a fever to have the flu?

A. While a fever is a common symptom, not everyone will spike a fever or have the same symptoms. Common flu symptoms include fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, headaches, sore throat, runny nose, and a persistent cough. People with a cold can also have a mild fever.

Q. How do you know if it’s a cold or the flu?

A. People with the flu typically feel ill suddenly, and their symptoms worsen over time. Exhaustion is one of the first signs of the flu. Chills, body aches, and headaches are also common symptoms. Common cold symptoms include sneezing, runny noses, sore throat, and mild fatigue.

Both the cold and the flu can linger for a week or longer.

Q. If I’m young and healthy, do I really need to worry?

A. Most people recover from the flu just fine within a week or two. But some people are at a higher risk for severe illness. This includes the elderly, very young children, pregnant women, and those with a compromised immune system.

If left untreated, flu complications can be deadly.

Even if you don’t experience serious complications, nobody wants to be sick and laid up for a week or more. Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent the flu. People ages six months and older should get the flu vaccine.

Q. True or false: If I had a flu shot last year, I don’t need another one this year.

A. False. Influenza viruses change every year — and therefore so do the flu vaccines. This means they work against the flu strains that researchers think are most likely to circulate in a given flu season.

Getting the flu vaccine every year greatly reduces your risk for getting the flu, even though it’s not 100% effective. Vaccinated people who do get the flu typically have milder symptoms and fewer complications.

Q. How can I prevent myself from getting sick?

A. Always wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Try not to touch your mouth, nose, or eyes since it’s easy to transfer germs there. Stay away from people who are sick.

Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces (like counters, faucets, and light switches) in your home, especially if anyone else in your household is sick.

Q. If I do get the flu, how can I protect others from catching it?

A. As with protecting yourself, wash your hands regularly and disinfect high-touch surfaces. Sneeze or cough into your shirt, the crook of your elbow, or a tissue (instead of into your hand). Stay home when you’re sick and keep as much distance from people in your household as you can.

Q What should I do if I catch the flu?

A. Get lots of rest, drink fluids, and take over-the-counter pain relievers. If that doesn’t help, see a doctor. Seek immediate medical attention if you have severe vomiting, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a fever that returns after it was normal.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.