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Recognizing the Signs: Is It a Cold or the Flu?

Emily McFalls, FNP, WNCCHS McDowell Health Center


As a Family Nurse Practitioner, a common question I hear during the winter season is, "Is it a cold or the flu?" Understanding the differences can help your family take the right steps for treatment and recovery. Here's a guide to recognizing the signs:

Emily McFalls, FNP

Common Cold:

• Symptoms: Typically starts gradually with a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, and sometimes a mild cough. Headaches and a low-grade fever can occur but are less common.

• Duration: Symptoms often peak within a few days and gradually improve within a week. Mild fatigue might linger for a bit longer.


Influenza (Flu):

• Symptoms: Comes on suddenly and can be more severe. High fever, body aches, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, and headaches are common. Gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or vomiting can also occur, especially in children.

• Duration: Symptoms are intense and can last longer than a cold, often up to two weeks. Fatigue and weakness might persist for several weeks.

Key Differences:

• Onset: Colds come on gradually; the flu hits suddenly.

• Fever: While both can present with a fever, it's more common and higher in flu cases.

• Severity: Flu symptoms tend to be more intense and debilitating than a common cold.


When to Seek Medical Attention:

If someone in your family, especially children or the elderly, experiences severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, sudden dizziness, confusion, or persistent high fever, it's crucial to seek medical help promptly.


Treatment Approach:

For both colds and flu, rest, hydration, and over-the-counter medications to manage symptoms (under healthcare provider guidance) can help. Antiviral medications might be prescribed for the flu if caught early.

Prevention is Key:

Encouraging frequent handwashing, getting flu shots, and practicing good hygiene are effective ways to reduce the risk of both colds and flu.


Remember, this guide serves as a general overview. If you're unsure about your family's symptoms or if someone is at higher risk for complications, consulting with a health care provider is always wise for tailored advice and treatment.


Stay vigilant, take care, and here's to a healthy season for your family!


Call (828) 583-6733 to Make an Appointment with Emily McFalls, FNP, at WNCCHS —McDowell Health Center. Visit wncchs.org/providers to learn more.


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