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Is It a Cold, the Flu, or Pneumonia?

When your head is pounding, your nose is stuffed, and you can't stop coughing and sneezing, you might not care what you have — you just want relief.

But it's important to know that a cold, the flu, and pneumonia can all cause those symptoms.

How do you tell the difference between the flu and a common cold? It can be difficult to tell the flu and a cold apart since they have very similar symptoms.

To find out how to get the relief you need, you need to know exactly what kind of bug you're dealing with.

What Are the Symptoms of a Common Cold?

The common cold is a simple illness that typically is not a serious infection. It’s little more than a nuisance — unless, of course, you're the one with the cold symptoms.

"Colds are caused by viruses, and the most common virus that causes the cold is rhinovirus," says Aaron M. Milstone, MD, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore.

While a common cold is no fun to deal with, it is not as dangerous as the influenza virus, which can spread to other people more quickly, and even kill, adds Dr. Milstone. There are also far fewer hospitalizations associated with the common cold than with the flu, he adds.

The symptoms of the common cold often include:

  • Coughing and a sore throat

  • Stuffy or runny nose and sneezing

  • Eyes that water

  • Some muscle aches and headaches

  • Low or no fever

Generally, says Milstone, people feel bad and a little run down for a couple of days, then start to perk up as the cold runs its course.

A good way to tell whether you have the common cold or the flu is by how quickly the symptoms appear. Symptoms of the common cold take their time. Flu symptoms, on the other hand, hit fast.

What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?

While the flu is also caused by a virus, it's a whole different kind of illness. Cold symptoms are relatively mild, whereas the flu causes much more severe symptoms.

"Influenza can really wipe out even a healthy person," says Milstone.

There is a vaccine to prevent, and medication to treat, certain strains of the flu. Flu treatment reduces how long you experience flu symptoms.

Flu symptoms often include:

  • Extreme fatigue with body and muscle aches

  • Headaches

  • No appetite

  • High fever

  • Chills and sweats

  • Stuffy nose and cough

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