How to Tell If Your Cold or Flu is Serious

The flu virus is now widespread across much of the United States. Nearly 3% of the population is currently sick with the flu, emergency rooms are overloaded and some areas are even experiencing vaccine shortages.

Though most people will fully recover from a bout of the flu, those with underlying conditions, the very young and the very old, pregnant women and, for reasons not exactly clear, Native Americans and native Alaskans, are at increased risk of complications. But the rest of us aren’t off the hook. The strain of flu that seems to be leading the pack this year, H1N1, is a serious risk even for young and healthy people. Across the country, dozens of previously healthy adults have already died since the flu season began in October.

Moreover, it’s likely that the flu season hasn’t even peaked yet. If you’ve made it this far and haven’t gotten sick, you’re not out of the gate yet. Haven’t been vaccinated? There’s still time to do it.

But what if, despite your best efforts, you still get sick? In this case, knowledge is power — and can even help save your life.

Know the Difference Between a Cold and a Flu.

The crucial difference between a cold and a flu is the severity of symptoms. If you’re using your sick day to catch up on housework, it’s more likely that you have a cold. On the other hand, if you don’t even have enough energy to watch a Law and Order: SVU marathon, it’s more likely that you have the flu. Another major sign is how suddenly you fell ill. The more quickly your symptoms appeared, the more likely it is that you have the flu.

Runny and stuffy noses, sneezing and sore throats are more symptomatic of a cold. Fevers, headaches, coughing, fatigue and general aches and pains are symptomatic of both, but these symptoms are more severe in the flu. If you’re experiencing a fever above 100 degrees F or extreme exhaustion, it is very likely that you have the flu.

Take Care of Yourself.

To prevent any serious complications, taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do:

  • Drink clear liquids. Soup and broth work well, too.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take any over the counter or prescription pain medication to manage symptoms. You can check out some natural cold and flu remedies here, too.

When to Go to the Doctor.

If your symptoms are not severe, and you are not at risk of complications, skip the emergency room.

If you have underlying complications, like heart disease, HIV/AIDS, asthma, diabetes, or are pregnant, call your doctor to discuss your options. People over 65, and children under 5, pregnant women, and Native Americans and Native Alaskans should also contact a doctor.

Most people’s symptoms will clear up in a few days. If it has been 3 days and your flu hasn’t let up, or has gotten worse, call your doctor.

Signs of a Medical Emergency.

If you experience any of these symptoms, call an ambulance or head to the emergency room.

  • Dizziness, particularly if it comes on suddenly.
  • Flu symptoms that subsided then came back a few days later with a fever and a worse cough.
  • Confusion.
  • Breathing problems; wheezing, shortness of breath, rapid breathing.
  • Pain/pressure in the chest and/or abdomen.
  • Persistent or severe vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Blue or purple lips and/or nails.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Stiff neck.



Kelly S
Past Member about a year ago

I almost died from the flu

Carole H.
Carole H4 years ago

I have COPD so flu can be a killer for me - thank you for the info

Edo R.
Edo R5 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Nicole W.
Nicole W5 years ago

thank you for posting

Holly Lewis
Past Member 5 years ago


Liberty Goodwin
Liberty Goodwin5 years ago

We live in a germaphobic society - and unfortunately, I'm not sure that anyone is really keeping track of what's really happening. How many of the people who have got the flu had their flu shots? How many who didn't get the shot actually get sick? Really, doesn't your health result more more how well your own immune system is working, how healthy your life style?

Val M.
Val M5 years ago


Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert5 years ago

Great information, thanks

Lara Klymus
Lara K5 years ago

thank you for sharing!

Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti5 years ago

I never get flu shots and I never get sick.