Sep 5, 2017, 12:07:59 PM CDT Feb 22, 2019, 2:28:12 PM CST

Cold vs flu: How to tell the difference

Cold symptoms can look similar to flu symptoms in kids. Learn how to tell the difference between cold and flu.

little girl blowing her nose little girl blowing her nose

Parents can expect their kids to get colds every year, especially during the fall and winter months when the risk of flu is also higher. So, how can you tell if your child is having flu symptoms or just has the common cold?  

Causes of cold and flu  

Both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses. The common cold, also referred to as Upper Respiratory Infection or URI, can be caused by several viruses, and testing is not typically done to diagnose. Flu is caused by specific influenza viruses and there are several strains that circulate every year.   

Cold symptoms vs flu symptoms

The common cold and flu share several symptoms including cough, sore throat and congestion. However, the severity and onset is usually different. With a common cold, the symptoms usually come on gradually – starting with a sore throat and then progressing to cough, runny nose and/or sneezing. Your child can also have a mild fever. The symptoms may last 3-10 days.  

With flu, the symptoms tend to come on rapidly and your child will look and feel more sick. They may complain of sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, weakness and feeling tired. Fevers may be high, and your child could experience chills. Most kids get better in a few days to 2 weeks. If your child has any trouble breathing, a change in skin color, is not able to drink fluids, has severe vomiting, appears very irritable, or their fever returns after a respite period – please see a doctor immediately as these could be signs of a more serious illness. See tips to help determine when your child should go to the emergency room.

Cold vs flu treatment 

If your child has a cold, specific medications are not needed. Keep your child well hydrated, have them blow their nose or suction nose for infants and rest as needed. Your child can continue to go to school if they do not have a fever. Cough and cold medications are not routinely recommended for children.  

If you think your child has the flu, keep them home from school. Allow them to get plenty of rest and fluids. If your child has any chronic conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, or appears very ill, contact your primary doctor. If flu is detected within the first 48 hours, there are medicines which may help shorten the time your child is sick by 1-2 days. Most of the time, your child will improve with fluids and rest. You may give fever/pain reducing medications as needed.  

Cold and flu prevention 

For both the common cold and flu, preventative techniques include washing hands often, covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze, avoiding contact with those who are sick and disinfecting surfaces.

The best way to prevent flu is to get the flu vaccine. You should get a flu vaccine every year before the actual flu season starts so your body is prepared (it takes about 2 weeks after the vaccine for your body to develop the antibodies). For more flu prevention tips, see 6 ways to help your family stay healthy during flu season (infographic).

Get care now

We know that getting sick is never convenient. But now you can videoconference with a health care provider 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with Virtual Visit by Children's Health Virtual Care. Get treated right from your smartphone, tablet or computer for allergies, common colds, cuts and more. Download the Virtual Visit app today.

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