Getting Sick? Know the Difference Between Cold, Flu, and H1N1


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The Rhinovirus is one of the viruses that causes the common cold. Image by Quibik.

The winter months are cold – and we stay inside more than when it’s warmer out, which brings us into close contact to others – this can increase the spread of colds, seasonal flu, and even the H1N1 flu.

Now, you’re starting to get sick, but how do you know what you have? Let’s look at the similarities and differences between the symptoms of these three illnesses.

What Is a Cold? Symptoms of the Common Cold Virus

A ‘cold’ is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract – this includes your nose, sinuses, and throat. There are more than 100 viruses that can cause the common cold, so symptoms can vary greatly. (This is also why there’s no ‘cure’ for the common cold – there are too many viruses that cause it!) However, some of the most common symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, along with sneezing, watery eyes, an itchy or sore throat, cough, congestion, slight body aches, a mild headache, a low-grade fever, and mild fatigue.

Symptoms begin within one to three days after you were exposed to the virus, and most people will recover within a week or two without complications.

Seasonal Flu Symptoms

There are two main types of seasonal influenza, Type A and Type B. Seasonal flu is a respiratory infection that can cause the following symptoms, fever (though not everyone will have one), cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though, that is more common in children with the flu.

Most people with recover from the flu within a few days to two weeks; however complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections can arise from the flu.

H1N1 Symptoms

The H1N1 virus, or also known as the swine flu first infected people in 2009. Like the seasonal flu, symptoms include cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Unlike the seasonal flu, H1N1 can also result in lack of appetite and eye irritation, according to the CDC.

If you get the H1N1 flu, you could end up with complications, just like the seasonal flu.

Differences and Similarities

Think the symptoms look pretty similar between all three? You’re right. The difference between colds and flu is generally in the severity – that’s how high your fever goes, how significant your body aches are, and how long it lasts. It can be tough to figure out whether you have a cold or a strain of influenza, but telling the difference between the seasonal influenza and the swine flu is even harder – and impossible from home.

People who have swine flu have often reported having diarrhea and vomiting which is rare in people with seasonal influenza, but not impossible. The only way to really tell if you have the swine flu is by having a laboratory test done.

How can you tell whether you have a cold, the seasonal flu, or H1N1? Go to the doctor – a lab test is the only way to know for sure, regardless of the potential symptoms. Table by Pequot Health Care, Image by Decoded Science

Cold vs. Flu vs. Swine Flu Symptoms

Think you can tell based on your symptoms alone? Think again. There is a table going around on social media that describes differences between the common cold, seasonal influenza, and the H1N1 virus – this table was created by Pequot Health Care, in Mashantucket, CT.

Decoded Science attempted to contact Pequot Health Care to discuss the contents of the table, but have not received a response, so we showed the list to an expert in infectious diseases; Ruth Carrico PhD, FSHEA, RN, CIC of the University of Louisville’s Division of Infectious Disease.

Dr. Carrico tells us:

“I looked at the table and I was interested to see how the summary of the signs and symptoms for H1N1 have been described as noticeably different from other strains of type A flu.  I am not aware that the differences as outlined are accurate and have not seen any review comparing those strains on a population basis.”

Preventing Colds and Flu

Whether you’re worried about a cold, seasonal flu, or H1N1, prevention is your best option. Keep your immune system healthy by getting enough rest, exercising, and eating well – and wash your hands often if you’re in public or sharing a space with someone who is sick. The CDC says that “handwashing is like a “do-it-yourself” vaccine” and one of the best ways to prevent diarrheal diseases and respiratory illnesses.

If you get sick, you can spread the flu starting, “the day before symptoms appear,” according to Dr. Carrico, so be mindful if there’s a bug going around – don’t forget, as Dr. Carrico tells us, “… a person with flu may not necessarily have those typical symptoms so they may not recognize that they are infectious.”

Do I Have a Cold or the Flu? Or Even Swine Flu?

While it maybe hard to tell the difference between the seasonal flu and the H1N1 flu, both can be serious and cause complications, especially for anyone with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, so check with your doctor if your illness is severe and doesn’t resolve quickly – or if symptoms go away and then come back.

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