It’s that time of year again! Cold and flu season is in full swing. However, if you’re feeling under the weather, it can be difficult to know which illness you are suffering from.

Here are some tips from a medical professional to help you determine if you are suffering from the common cold or something more serious.

Nick Duncan is a Family Physician at Cottonwood Family Medicine, an Intermountain Healthcare facility. He said there is a pretty stark contrast between a cold and the flu.

“The flu tends to be much more severe symptoms. You tend to feel a quick onset of body aches, fever, headache,” he said. “You still get a lot of the respiratory symptoms with it, that congestion, runny nose.”

However, Duncan said with the flu, the body aches, fever, and headache are usually more predominant symptoms, and they arrive quickly. On the other hand, colds have a more gradual onset.

“Colds tend to be not as severe,” he said. “And you don’t tend to get as much of the body aches, high fever.”

Though Duncan said both the flu and colds could be dangerous depending on a patient’s health background, the flu tends to lead to more severe complications like pneumonia, high fevers, and possible dehydration. Duncan said with the flu, temperatures can get as high as 104 or even 106 in severe cases.

The graphic below, from the Center for Disease Control, shows which types of symptoms signal a cold and which signal the flu.

But if your symptoms meet those of the flu, do you need to see a doctor?

According to Duncan, not necessarily. He said many people who are generally healthy can typically manage symptoms safely at home as long as they are hydrating well.

“As long as you’re not having severe respiratory symptoms and difficulty breathing, a lot of those symptoms can be managed at home,” he said. “If things are progressing, or you’re feeling significantly worse, it’s never a bad idea to check in with your physician and talk with them about what you’re experiencing.”

However, he stressed that each patient is different, and therefore, should always feel comfortable consulting with their physician, especially patients who are particularly vulnerable.

Duncan said that populations who can’t receive the flu shot (infants and those who’ve had a reaction to the vaccine), children under 5, patients over 65, and anyone with medical complications such as lung disease, asthma, COPD, Diabetes, and Heart Disease are more susceptible to the flu.


According to Duncan, there are several ways to avoid getting a cold or the flu.

Though getting a flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu, it does help reduce complications, the severity of infections, and the infectivity. Getting a yearly flu shot, Duncan said, provides future protection.

“The time that you’re contagious starts before you have symptoms, so having the vaccine can help reduce the time that you’re contagious and can actually help your body be prepared to fight it off faster,” Duncan said.

The cold and flu can both be passed through contact with someone who has the virus or through the air. The virus can also rest on inanimate objects and live there.

Therefore, Duncan said it is important to wash your hands, especially before touching your face. He also suggested wearing a mask and overall, staying vigilant. Those who are more susceptible to the disease should avoid those they know are infected, he said.

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