Cold and Flu 101: What You Need to Know


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The flu and the common cold have similar symptoms, so how do you tell them apart? Our expert explains the differences, prevention and where to seek care.

Typical for this time of year, Renown is currently seeing a rise in patients with flu-like symptoms and other winter illnesses. We asked Kathleen Burns, an advance practice registered nurse at Renown Health, about flu prevention and how to know the difference between the flu virus and the common cold.

How do you prevent the seasonal flu?

The annual flu vaccine is truly the best form of protection to help prevent the spread of the flu. Even if you do get the flu after being vaccinated, your symptoms will be lessened. Flu vaccines are still available in the community, including health providers at Renown Medical Group. Call 775-982-5000 to make an appointment.

Although they are not substitutes for the flu vaccine, simple preventative actions can do a lot to help slow the spread of the virus, including:

  • Covering your mouth when coughing and staying away from people who are coughing.
  • Washing  your hands often.
  • If you have the flu, stay home. If you have the flu and need to go out, including a visit to the doctor’s office, wear a protective mask.

Other precautionary measures include cleaning shared spaces and avoiding shared utensils and drinks.

Who should get the flu shot?

Almost everyone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older as the first and most important step in protecting against influenza. Different flu shots are approved for people of different ages, but there are flu shots that are approved for use in people as young as 6 months of age and up. Flu shots are approved for use in pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. Bottom line: Your best chance of avoiding the flu this season is to get your flu vaccine.


How do you know if it’s the flu or a cold?

The flu and the common cold have similar symptoms and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Your healthcare provider can give you a test within the first few days of your illness to determine whether or not you have the flu.

In general, the flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms such as fever, body aches, fatigue and cough are more common and intense with the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.

Flu symptoms include:

  • A 100 degree or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children)

Does washing your hands really help prevent sickness like cold and flu?

Yes. Again, the single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated each year, but good health habits like washing your hands often can help stop the spread of germs and prevent illnesses like the cold and flu.

The proper way to wash your hands is to wet them with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap. Lather your hands by rubbing them together. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you need a timer, hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. Rinse your hands well and dry them using a clean towel or air dry them.

If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol to clean hands.

Other good health habits include covering your cough; avoiding close contact with people who are sick; staying home when you are sick; and practicing a healthy lifestyle by getting plenty of sleep, being physically active, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious food.


  1. Another way to differentiate between flu and a cold is the "Hundred Dollar Test". If you see a twenty dollar bill on the floor across the room and could/would get up and go get it, it's (just) a cold. If you see a hundred dollar bill next to you on the bed, but can't find the energy to reach over and get it, it's influenza. Get the shot. It may not seem like it helps, but it can make the difference between life and death. Wash your hands, cover your cough.