Figuring out whether you have a cold or the flu isn't always easy, in part because they often cause similar symptoms. To figure out which you have, check the chart below—then follow our day-by-day advice for your particular winter malady.


Day 1
Don’t call your doctor.
There’s no prescription drug proved to shorten the common cold. Antibiotics work against bacterial infections, not viral ones, such as colds. And the antiviral drugs that can ease the flu don’t work against the viruses that cause colds.

Keep it simple. An over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve), can ease a sore throat, but so can gargling with salt water.  

Practice scrupulous hygiene. Though it’s good to stay home if you can, that’s not as important as it is when you have the flu. And you probably don’t feel as terrible, because colds usually come on gradually, with a sore throat. But do make sure that when you’re out in public you practice extra-good hygiene. Avoid touching others, cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, and wash your hands regularly.


Days 2-4
Don’t try to “sweat it out.” You might feel good enough to exercise, and maybe you even think that working out hard will speed your recovery. Moderate activity probably won’t hurt and might even help a little, but an exhausting workout is more likely to prolong symptoms, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., chief medical adviser for Consumer Reports.

Get ready for congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose. These symptoms often develop after a sore throat. When they do, consider nondrug measures such as honey or a salt-water gargle for a sore throat, saline nasal sprays to ease congestion, and staying well-hydrated and consuming hot tea or soup to thin the mucus.

5+ Days
Consider calling a doctor if symptoms worsen or don’t improve. You could be developing a bacterial infection on top of a viral one, which would require an antibiotic. Or you might have another problem, such as allergies, bronchitis, or pneumonia.


Day 1
Stay home.
At this point you’re highly contagious, so you don’t want to spread germs. And you probably feel like a truck hit you. So call work or school and say you’re out of commission. The flu usually lasts a week and often two—though after a few days you can reconsider if symptoms ease.

Stock up. If you can, have someone bring flu-survival basics: tissues, easy-to-eat foods, and over-the-counter meds—and maybe even cook some chicken soup.

Pamper yourself. Your body is yelling “Climb into bed!” Listen to it. Pushing yourself hard, especially early in the illness, can weaken you.

Ask your doctor about an antiviral drug, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza), especially if you’re 65 or older; younger than 5; pregnant or just had a baby; or have asthma, heart disease, or other chronic diseases. Antivirals can shorten the flu by about a day and reduce the risk of pneumonia and other complications, but only if started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. (As with a cold, don’t ask for antibiotics. They work only for bacterial infections, and the flu is viral.)

Rein in your fever. The flu often starts with a temp over 100° F. You can get it down with acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve). These drugs can also ease the intense head and body aches that often emerge with the flu.

Days 2-4
Get fluids down, even if you don’t have an appetite. Fever can make dehydration more likely. Consider alternating water with a salty liquid such as chicken or vegetable broth and a sweet liquid like tea, juice, or iced fruit pops. “The mixture helps replace electrolytes—like sodium, potassium, and glucose—and full hydration may help thin out thick mucus,” says Patricia A. Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner and senior director of infection prevention and control at Children’s Minnesota, a pediatric health system.

Monitor your temperature. “Fever in itself is not harmful,” Stinchfield says, but in rare cases, sudden spikes can trigger seizures, especially in young children. And fever indicates that you’re probably still contagious.

Watch for complications. The flu can get serious quickly. Call a healthcare provider if you have difficulty breathing or swallowing, or if you experience disorientation, all of which can indicate pneumonia, bronchitis, or dehydration. Those most vulnerable are children, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions. Also contact a healthcare provider if your throat is so sore that drinking is painful or if you have difficulty urinating.

Days 5-6
Consider going back to work or school if you’re feeling stronger and have been fever-free for 24 hours.

Prepare for a lingering sore throat and cough. Though body aches and fever are probably gone by now, coughing and a sore throat often persist. Some good nondrug options are lozenges, honey, gargling with salt water, and lots of tea or soup.

7+ Days
Don’t panic. The flu often lasts longer than a week. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing and you should get progressively better.

Call your doctor if you’re not improving or if you have any of the warning signs of complications described above. You could be developing pneumonia or sinusitis, or have another health problem.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.