It can be hard to differentiate between a common cold and something more serious.
When your head is banging, your nose is stuffed, and you are on a coughing and sneezing frenzy, you may not care what you have — you just want relief.
But it’s essential to know that a cold, the flu, and pneumonia can all come with those symptoms.
How do you differentiate between the flu and a common cold? It can be difficult to tell the flu and a cold apart since they have very similar symptoms.
To be sure how to get the relief you need, you need to know exactly what kind of bug you’re dealing with.
What Are the Symptoms of a Common Cold?
The common cold is a simple sickness that typically is not a serious infection. It’s little more than a nuisance — unless, of course, you’re the one with the cold symptoms.
“Colds come as a result of viruses, and the most common virus that causes the cold is rhinovirus,” says Aaron M. Milstone, MD, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
Though a common cold is no fun to endure, it is not as dangerous as the influenza virus, which can spread to other people more quickly, and even kill, adds Dr. Milstone. There are also far fewer hospitalizations associated with the common cold than with the flu, he adds.
The symptoms of the common cold often include:
- Eyes that water
- Some muscle aches and headaches
- Low or no fever
- Coughing and a sore throat
- Stuffy or runny nose and sneezing
Generally, says Milstone, people feel bad and a little run down for a couple of days, then start to perk up as the cold runs its course.
A good way to tell whether you have the common cold or the flu is by how quickly the symptoms appear. Symptoms of the common cold take their time. Flu symptoms, on the other hand, hit fast.
What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?
While the flu is also caused by a virus, it’s a total different kind of illness. Cold symptoms are relatively mild, whereas the flu causes much more severe symptoms.
“Influenza can really wipe out even a healthy person,” says Milstone.
There is a vaccine to prevent, and medication to treat, certain strains of the flu. Flu treatment reduces how long you experience flu symptoms.
Flu symptoms commonly include:
- No appetite
- High fever
- Chills and sweats
- Stuffy nose and cough
- Extreme fatigue with body and muscle aches
What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is basically caused by a bacterial infection, although there are types of viral pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is very treatable with antibiotics — if you get a diagnosis and promptly start pneumonia treatment.
But pneumonia can be a serious problem for people at high risk for the disease, including senior citizens, very young children, and those with a chronic lung condition. Two different pneumonia vaccines are available to protect against certain types of this potentially deadly illness.
Pneumonia symptoms often include:
- Coughing up mucus or even blood
- Extreme fatigue
- Trouble breathing
- Chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
- High fever with chills
- Frequent sweating with clammy skin
- No appetite
- Acting confused
Cold, Flu, and Pneumonia: How They Compare
The basic differences, says Milstone, come down to whether you can prevent and treat the disease, and how serious the consequences can be.
With the common cold, he says, there’s not much that really can be done — and there’s no vaccine to prevent it. But since it’s not a serious illness and symptoms are pretty cool, it’s not typically something you should worry about.
The flu and pneumonia are different stories. Both can have serious consequences and more severe symptoms that can leave you feeling pretty awful. Both are associated with a much higher rate of hospitalization and even death than the common cold. The severe symptoms associated with flu and pneumonia should be evaluated by a doctor.
Some types of both the flu and pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines and treated with medication. These can not only prevent serious complications, but also get you feeling better fast — and no matter what you have, that’s all you want.