Here’s how to tell the difference between the flu and the common cold

Watch the flu spread across the United States

The activity of flu-like illnesses was at high levels in mid-January in 24 states, including California, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
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The activity of flu-like illnesses was at high levels in mid-January in 24 states, including California, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

With 37 children nationwide dying from the flu this season as of Friday — including a seventh-grader in Palm Beach County who died Tuesday after his family thought he had a common cold — medical experts are advising parents to pay close attention to their child’s symptoms and to learn the difference between the flu and the common cold.

This year’s flu outbreak is particularly virulent. Earlier this month, health officials said hospitalizations and visits to the doctor are on the rise because of flu symptoms; the H3N2 subtype of the virus appears to be the most predominant strain. At least 13 states have had school closures due to the flu; schools in Gulf County, Florida, closed Friday due to an outbreak.

This flu season, pediatric deaths may even exceed the 148 deaths reported three years ago during the 2014-2015 flu season, according to the latest weekly report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Florida, three children have died from the flu this season, the Florida Department of Health has reported. In the case of Dylan Winnik, the 12-year-old in Palm Beach, his symptoms escalated rapidly, according to the Palm Beach Post. His mom had initially thought it was a cold.

Dylan Winnik GoFundMe

Flu vs. Cold

There are differences between the flu and a cold, say local medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The biggest difference is that with the flu you’ll usually have a fever (100.4 degrees or more) coupled with muscle pain and body aches, which can be severe.

With a cold, you’ll have more symptoms like sneezing, a cough and phlegm, said Dr. Amanda Porro, director of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital’s pediatric care center. Colds normally don’t carry a fever and they don’t have the same level of aches and pains.

“The flu has less nasal congestion, and more high fever and body aches as opposed to having a disturbed upper respiratory system,” Porro said. “If a child doesn’t have an appetite, is breathing rapidly, not urinating enough and not acting like themselves, that’s when you should get checked out immediately.”

The flu comes on abruptly; the cold is more gradual. The flu usually comes with a headache; headaches are rare with a cold, according to the CDC.

Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu; the cold doesn’t have these symptoms.

When to seek medical care

One of the key decisions is when to seek medical care for your child.

About 48 hours is the cutoff time, says Dr. Jennifer Goldman, medical director at Memorial Healthcare’s primary care program, South Broward Community Health Services.

“Once you see the abrupt fever, headaches, muscle aches, tiredness, accompanied by a sore throat and runny nose, seek help,” Goldman said, noting that if you can’t get a same-day appointment at a primary care physician, immediately go to an urgent-care center or hospital emergency room.

Most at risk

People at high risk for developing serious flu complications include young children, people over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease.

Among children and adolescents, children under 2 and those with a weak immune system are most at risk, doctors say. Kids receiving long-term aspirin therapy, those who are obese, have asthma or who suffer from seizures also are at a higher risk, Goldman said.

Any person with lung disease, vasculitis, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, sickle cell disease or any type of neurological conditions is also prone to the virus, she added.

“Adults who have HIV, an organ transplant, inflammatory disorder are populations considered particularly at high risk as well,” Goldman said.

The flu is dangerous because it can quickly lead to serious complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and even death. It can also make chronic conditions such as asthma and congestive heart failure worse.

“The flu will really knock you out. That’s why you can’t ignore it,” said Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of general internal medicine at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

Getting vaccinated

The CDC recommends that everyone older than 6 months get a flu vaccine every year. And while infants are too small to be vaccinated, those who take care of them should be vaccinated, the federal health agency says.

“Our responsibility as adults is to protect those around us,” Carrasquillo said. “Especially if you’re around the elderly or children.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

The flu vs. the common cold

While many may think the flu and the common cold are similar, they are not. The flu is a serious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. Here are the major differences between the flu and the cold:


Symptom onset: Abrupt

Fever: Yes; lasts 3-4 days

Aches: Yes; often severe

Chills: Common

Fatigue, weakness: Usual

Sneezing: Sometimes

Stuffy nose: Sometimes

Sore throat: Sometimes

Chest discomfort, cough: Common, can be severe

Headache: Common


Symptom onset: Gradual

Fever: Rare

Aches: Slight

Chills: Uncommon

Fatigue, weakness: Sometimes

Sneezing: Common

Stuffy nose: Common

Sore throat: Common

Chest discomfort, cough: Mild to moderate, hacking cough

Headache: Rare

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention