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Cold or Flu? How to Spot the Difference

The common cold and seasonal flu share many symptoms, but there are points of differentiation to help you identify which it is in order to seek treatment. 

Common Cold:

  • Symptoms typically come on gradually.
  • Common symptoms include nasal congestion, sneezing and runny nose. Can also include cough, mild headache and minor body aches.
  • Symptoms tend to last a week.
  • Over-the-counter medications are generally effective.

Seasonal Flu:

  • Symptoms usually come on suddenly and are more severe than a cold. 
  • Common symptoms include high-grade fever, headache, body ached and fatigue. Can also include dry cough, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose. 
  • Symptoms generally improve within two to five days but can last a week or more. 
  • Prescription anti-viral drugs can help decrease the severity and length of symptoms; call a doctor if you think your symptoms are worsening or if you have a condition such as asthma, diabetes or are pregnant.

Office Safety During Flu Season
An influenza outbreak is a serious concern in the office. You work closely and come in direct contact with others frequently, which means germs and bacteria can spread easily from person to person.

The best strategy for reducing your risk of becoming ill with a virus is to avoid crowded settings and other situations that increase the risk of exposure to an infected individual. Since you must work in an environment with many others, stay healthy by observing good hygiene and distancing precautions, such as the following:

  • Stay home from work when you are sick.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer (if soap and water are not available).
  • Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Then, dispose of the tissue in a no-touch trash bin.
  • Wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Avoid close contact with co-workers (stay six feet away whenever possible).
  • Avoid shaking hands and always wash your hands after physical contact with others.
  • Keep frequently touched surfaces (telephones, computer keyboards, elevator buttons, etc.) clean.
  • If you need to wear gloves, wash your hands after removing them.
  • Try not to use other workers’ supplies, phones, computers, desks, offices, work tools, etc.
  • Minimize group meetings when possible—use email, phones and text messaging instead. If meetings are unavoidable, avoid close contact with others and ensure that the meeting rooms are properly ventilated.
  • Limit unnecessary visitors in the workplace.
  • Healthy habits at home, like getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly can also help keep the cold and flu away.

Home Care for Cold and Flu Season
Many people visit the doctor even when they do not need a doctor’s expertise to diagnose and treat their symptoms. The next time you or someone in your family has a cold or experience flu-like symptoms (such as a sore throat, runny nose, cough, dizziness, fever or muscle aches), it may be wise to try some home remedies before making that expensive visit to the doctor. While a trip to the doctor is important and can help you recover quickly, there are a number of supplemental home care strategies that can help you further recuperate.

 The following are some remedies to try:

  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms, such as a headache, muscle ache and fever.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Use a humidifier or take a hot shower to relieve a headache, cough or congestion.
  • Place a warm washcloth over your eyes to ease sinus pressure and congestion.

While home remedies can help relieve cold and flu symptoms, they aren’t useful for everyone. Children and the elderly should see a doctor if they begin to feel sick to avoid more serious health complications.

Specifically, individuals should seek immediate care if they experience any of the following:

  • Chest pain when breathing

  • Sore throat lasting more than 48 hours; inside of throat is bright red, swollen, has white spots or a rough, red rash

  • Yellow or green nasal discharge that is accompanied by severe facial pain or a relentless headache

  • Cough is painful and produces thick, bloody or green mucous

  • Severe or persistent ear pain, or there is ear discharge

  • Developing a fever of 100°F or higher after the third day of being ill

  • Persistent pain in your abdomen or rectum

  • Bloody or black stool or vomit, or vomit resembling coffee beans


This is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical or legal advice.