1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Do I have the flu or the common cold?

December 17, 2018

It's not always easy for people to tell the difference between a cold and a flu right away. What distinguishes influenza from a common cold?

Deutschland Fieberthermometer (Symbolbild)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Weigel

As a rule, the influenza virus - the cause of a genuine flu - spreads faster and easier in the winter months. But the numbers of common cold sufferers rises during the same time, as well. So it can often be difficult for those afflicted to tell them apart. A cold infection manifests itself gradually, often starting with a scratchy throat and perhaps a slight fever and then turning into bronchitis or a dry cough. Modern medicine is still rather ineffective in fighting these typical cold symptoms. All we can do is try to provide relief in the form of familiar home remedies, nasal sprays, cough syrup and throat lozenges. "With a doctor, a cold lasts seven days; without a doctor, a week," is an old quip.

A flu is quite different: It strikes rather suddenly. Within a very short time, the patient feels very sick. The fever can run high, often over 39 degrees Celsius. Acute pains in the joints and headaches can be accompanied by nausea. Sufferers might feel so weak, they can barely stand up. The sensible thing to do is stay in bed, rest and, as with a cold, try to relieve the symptoms with over-the-counter flu medicines. Old and frail people or those with weakened immunse systems should consult a doctor, since a flu can easily turn into pneumonia.