Telling the Difference Between a Cold and the Flu

September 25, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Paul A. Marquette, M.D. contributes to topics such as Family Medicine.

By Danielle Schipani

Every year there is one health topic that always makes headlines, the nationwide flu outbreak. As the fall rolls in, the flu starts to become more and more prevalent, usually peaking during the winter months.

When you start to feel achy and drowsy the first thing that comes to mind is, do I have the flu? But how can you tell the difference between the common cold and symptoms of the flu?

Often the symptoms between these two ailments are very similar. Paul A Marquette, M.D., a primary care provider at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group in Point Pleasant and Brielle, offers tips on ways you can tell the difference between the a cold and the flu, as well as treatment options for both.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms that are similar among both illnesses are nasal congestion, sore throat, runny nose, cough and fatigue. Both typically last the same period of time, which is usually somewhere between 5-10 days.

The biggest difference is that with the flu there is a quick onset of symptoms, and there are usually more symptoms such as a high fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue and headaches.

If you believe you may have the flu, Dr. Marquette explains that you should contact your primary care provider as soon as possible. A patient with flu symptoms may immediately be taken into a room, and may be asked to wear a mask to prevent infecting others. Additionally, the patient should refrain from going to work or school until their fever has resolved for at least 24 hours without fever reducing medication.

Diagnosing the Flu

“Many offices have rapid flu kits available, which can help determine if a patient has the flu. The patient would use a nasal swab provided in each kit, which would indicate if they are positive for the flu, and also indicates which strain they have,” says Dr. Marquette.

Get Better, Fast

When treating the flu, anti-viral medications are typically prescribed, and are most effective when given within 48 hours. Sleep and rest are encouraged, and patients can take Tylenol or Advil if they can tolerate it, to help with body aches and to reduce their fever.

With a cold, over the counter medication is also frequently prescribed. However, it is noteworthy that antivirals and antibiotics are not effective, and do not work when treating the common cold.

Many people believe that they should start to take vitamin C supplements when they start to feel some of these symptoms. Yet, there is no proof that this will actually defeat the cold of flu.

“There are anecdotal reports of people taking a variety of vitamins and unfortunately none of them have good consistent results of being effective. However, taking extra vitamin C as well as b12 is not harmful,” explains Dr. Marquette.

How to Prevent the Flu

Dr. Marquette explains that the best way to avoid getting the flu is to make sure you get a flu shot. “Individuals who are 6 months and older are able to get a flu shot. Although we believe everyone should get the flu shot, it is extremely important for children, pregnant women and adults who are 50 and older as they are more susceptible to flu symptoms,” he says.

Other groups that are encouraged to get the flu shot are health care workers, people who have a suppressed immune system, as well as though who live with someone who has a suppressed immune system. It is also important to always practice good handwashing, especially when in public. Individuals can even consider wearing a mask when in public as extra precaution during peak flu season.

Dr. Marquette is currently practicing at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group – Primary Care – Brielle and Point Pleasant and is accepting new patients. To make an appointment, please call 732-295-0072 (Point Pleasant) or 732-528-0770 (Brielle).

For more information, or to find a provider near you, please visit

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.