Winter Illness Outbreak Cold and Flu

Know the Difference Between a Cold or the Flu

Megan DiGiorgio


By Megan J. DiGiorgio, MSN, RN, CIC, FAPIC

Clinical Specialist, GOJO Industries

During these winter months, it seems that we all know someone who is sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that seasonal influenza activity remains elevated in the United States1. In fact, 30 states are now reporting widespread flu activity, an increase from recent weeks.1 Even more bad news, CDC expects flu activity to remain elevated for a number of weeks as most flu activity peaks between December and February2.

To complicate matters, common cold viruses widely circulate during flu season, with the average adult getting two to four colds per year, mostly between September and late April3. Because these two types of viral respiratory illnesses have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish between them based on symptoms alone.

In general, the flu is more severe than the common cold. Colds typically do not result in serious complications, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. In some cases, diagnostic testing may need to be done to determine whether a person has a cold or the flu. So how can you tell if it is the cold or flu? Here are some general differences.






Usual; high (100⁰F to 102⁰F, occasionally higher, especially in young children); lasts 3-4 days




General aches and pains


Usual; often severe

Fatigue, weakness


Usual; can last up to 2 to 3 weeks

Extreme exhaustion


Usual; at the beginning of illness

Stuffy nose






Sore throat



Chest discomfort, cough

Mild to moderate; hacking cough

Common; can become severe

Source:  WebMd Media References. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/discomfort-15/cold-flu-season/is-it-a-cold-or-flu

Regardless of whether the culprit is the cold or the flu, there are some general infection prevention and control principles that every person should follow to stay healthy during cold and flu season.

1. Get your flu vaccine. This is the most important measure you can take. Remember, you can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine because it’s either made with inactivated virus, no virus at all, or a weakened virus that cannot cause illness. Ideally, while the CDC recommends that you should get a flu vaccine before flu begins spreading in your community (by the end of October), getting vaccinated throughout the flu season, even into January or later, can still be beneficial.4

2. If you do get the flu, your doctor may prescribe flu antiviral drugs. These drugs can make flu illness milder and shorten the time you are sick.  Most people who are otherwise healthy and get the flu do not need to be treated with antivirals; however, those at high risk of serious flu complications should seek medical advice for treatment.

3. Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

4. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs from your hands can enter your body through your eyes, nose and mouth.

5. Cover your cough or sneeze. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or into a tissue and then perform hand hygiene immediately.

6. Stay home if you are sick, and limit contact with others as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medications).

7. Disinfect and clean surfaces often. Frequent disinfection of surfaces can drastically reduce the number of germs on surfaces that can infect you via indirect contact. 

For more information about the flu and the most up-to-date information about this year’s flu season, visit the  GOJO Cold and Flu Page or the CDC’s flu web page.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Situation Update: Summary of Weekly FluView Report. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/summary.htm
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Flu Season. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm
3. WedMD. Common Cold Overview. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/common_cold_overview
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get Vaccinated. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/vaccinations.htm#when-vaccinate

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