According to the federal government's health information website, flu.gov, the flu and the common cold have similar symptoms, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. Your health care provider can give you a test within the first few days of your illness to determine whether it's really the flu.
One general guideline to keep in mind: the flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, tiredness, and cough are more common and intense with the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
And the risks of the flu — influenza, which is a type of viral respiratory infection — can be serious, resulting in illness and life-threatening complications, according to the CDC. Each year, up to 20 percent of Americans — that's 1 in 5 people — gets the flu, and more than 200,000 of those are hospitalized. Over a period of 30 years from 1976 to 2006, the CDC estimates that deaths from the flu have ranged from 3,000 each flu season up to 49,000 people.
Flu symptoms include:
- A fever of 100 F or higher, or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever).
- A cough and/or sore throat.
- A runny or stuffy nose.
- Headaches and/or body aches.
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children).
Flu season is here, with cases widespread in Virginia, but it's not too late to get a flu shot or nasal spray. This previous Patch story provides information on where to find flu shots near you.
But once you're sick, how do you know when to go see a doctor? Health officials recommend you seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
- Purple or blue discoloration of the lips.
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen.
- Sudden dizziness.
- Severe or persistent vomiting.
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.