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Cold and Flu Care

Medically reviewed by Til Jolly, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 7, 2023

You know it’s coming. You’re sneezing more than usual. You’re getting a stuffy nose, or it’s beginning to run. As you swallow, your throat starts to feel a little raw, and you’ve developed a cough. Do you have a cold or the flu?


Common Cold


The onset of a cold has become one of the most straightforward illnesses to detect. The CDC estimates that adults will have between two to three colds each year, with children having even more. More than 200 viruses can cause a cold, but rhinoviruses are the most common cause. These viruses are spread by people touching an infected surface and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes. In addition to the symptoms above, headaches, body aches, and watery eyes are common. A fever is not a typical symptom of a cold, but it is also not uncommon.




Influenza (flu) symptoms are very similar to cold symptoms. The aches and pains, the stuffy or runny nose, the coughs, and the sore throat typical with cold symptoms are also usually found in the onset of the flu. As with a cold, fever is not a specific symptom. However, it is more common with flu symptoms.


Differences between a Cold and the Flu


One of the main differences between a cold and flu is fatigue and tiredness, which is more common with flu symptoms. Also, flu symptoms tend to be more immediate than the gradual onset of a cold. It is also fairly common to experience chills with the flu.


Cold and Flu Similarities


Because the symptoms of colds can be similar to the flu, it can be difficult to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. Both are contagious respiratory illnesses, but different viruses cause them. The symptoms are also milder with a cold, and there are fewer risks of it developing into a severe health condition as there are with the flu.


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Flu - Symptoms

Flu - Symptoms

Cures for the Common Cold and the Flu


Due to the number of mutations, there is currently no flu or cold medicine to cure or shorten the infection time.


A cold virus usually lasts around 7-10 days. The FDA recommends people drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest as two ways to manage the virus. They also encourage covering your nose and mouth when sneezing to prevent spreading the virus. Regular hand washing is also essential in lowering the spread of the infection.


Gargling with a warm salt water solution can help ease a sore or scratchy throat. Similarly, washing your nose with a salt water rinse helps clean the nasal passages, kill germs, and dry out any mucus.


With the flu, because it can potentially develop into a fatal illness,  an annual vaccination is available to inoculate against that flu season’s most common strains. It’s advisable for everyone to get the yearly flu vaccine when the time comes, since, according to the CDC, the vaccine is typically between 40-60% effective in reducing the risk of infection. 


If you catch the flu, your doctor may also prescribe antiviral drugs to fight infection.


Over-The-Counter Medications


Several over-the-counter remedies can help to relieve cold and flu symptoms. These include pain relievers like ibuprofen and paracetamol, as well as decongestant nasal sprays and drops. Doctors rarely prescribe antibiotics for cold viruses as their effectiveness is limited.


Natural Remedies


Many people have claimed that vitamin C is an effective treatment for a cold. More recently, herbal remedies that include zinc or echinacea have also been touted as natural treatment options. However, due to a limited amount of study into their advantages and disadvantages, it is difficult to assess their effectiveness in relieving cold and flu symptoms. They may be more effective at shortening a virus episode than preventing its onset, but in some cases, they may also produce unwanted side effects.


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Flu - Diagnosis and Treatment

Flu - Diagnosis and Treatment

That said, there is the possibility that honey or herbal products like eucalyptus may provide some relief from a cough. Often a spoonful of honey in hot drinks can also help bring relief to a sore or scratchy throat.


Chicken Soup and Other Liquids


There has long been a custom of eating chicken soup to remedy cold and flu symptoms. Referred to affectionately as “Jewish Penicillin,” many highlight its alleged anti-inflammatory properties. However, its effectiveness is still debated. That said, warm liquids such as broth-based soups and teas can soothe an irritated throat and increase mucus flow, thereby easing congestion. They also help with keeping you sufficiently hydrated.


With cold and flu-like symptoms, the best form of care is to make sure you are getting enough rest, drinking lots of fluids, and regularly washing your hands. Regarding the flu, have the annual flu shot to lower the risk of catching the virus.


In most incidences of a cold or flu virus, it is best to let it pass on its own. In more severe cases of the flu or in cases that last more than 10 days, you should seek additional medical care from your doctor, who may prescribe antiviral or other medications.

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