Every year it seems to happen, usually around this time. You get a sniffle or maybe a scratchy throat and you wonder, is it just a cold or something more serious, like the flu?

It’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Although many of the symptoms can be similar, the treatments are very different.

As fall approaches and with winter on the horizon, here’s everything you need to know to avoid getting sick in the first place, and what to do if you get a cold or the flu.

Know the Symptoms

People often confuse the common cold and the flu because many of the symptoms overlap and can be eased by over-the-counter remedies.

To help you figure it out, here’s a snapshot of what each illness feels like. (If you're reading this article on your smartphone, we recommend you rotate it to landscape mode to view the tables below.)

Cold

Flu

Onset

Gradual

Sudden

Symptoms

Sore or scratchy throat, then a runny or stuffed nose, sneezing, and finally a cough; fatigue.

Chills, dry cough, headache, muscle aches, stuffed nose, sore throat, extreme tiredness, weakness.

Fever

Low or none

100° F or higher

Severity

Mild to moderate

More severe

Duration

A week to 10 day days, though a cough can linger for several weeks after you've recovered.

One to two weeks, though you might find that you feel weak and tired for weeks longer.

The Difference, and Why It Matters

One important clue to what you’re dealing with is how quickly symptoms strike. If they come on gradually, it’s probably a cold. If they strike and progress quickly, it’s probably the flu.

There are some major differences, as you can see in the chart above. Both are contagious. But if you have the flu, it’s especially important to limit contact with others because it can cause severe illness or even death in vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, children younger than 2, adults 65 and older, and people with compromised immune systems.

For most people, however, it’s not necessary to see a doctor. Antibiotics won’t help; they treat bacterial infections, not viruses. 

How to Prevent a Cold and the Flu

You’re a lot better off if you can avoid getting sick in the first place than you are trying to fight a bug once it strikes.

So wash your hands often and stay away from people who are infected. Being healthy overall can also help protect you. And research shows that regular exercise might help prevent the common cold or at least lessen its duration.

To prevent the flu, our experts recommend getting a flu vaccine
every year, and so do the authorities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

According to the CDC, everyone 6 months and older should get the shot, especially caregivers of kids under 5, pregnant women, adults
65 and older, people with chronic conditions, healthcare workers, and anyone who might come into contact with someone who could develop serious problems if they contracted the flu.

You can get the flu vaccine in a doctor’s office, clinic, or drugstore. Try to get your vaccine by the end of October if possible, the CDC says.