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Sneezing and flu: (Sneeze) Is That a Cold or the Flu?


(Sneeze) Is That a Cold or the Flu?

To some, the influenza virus or the flu is nothing but a common ailment one gets during the cold months but, occasionally it can be fatal for children and adults with weakened immune systems. While flu deaths in Alaska are rare, healthcare providers still recommend everyone get the Flu Shot to avoid getting this serious virus.

People with a higher risk of serious flu complications are:

  • young children
  • people with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart, kidney and lung disease
  • people over 65 years of age
  • pregnant women

If you live with or care for any of the above groups it is important that you get vaccinated to avoid spreading the flu to them.

How is the common cold different from flu?

Both are respiratory illnesses but they are caused by two very different viruses. Due to the similarity of symptoms, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between a cold and the flu initially. Only a laboratory test will give you a definitive answer but, there are some slight differences between them that can help you determine the difference.

Severity – Symptoms for both include stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing, fever and, body aches but they are much milder with a common cold than the flu. Common cold symptoms normally crop up and worsen gradually whereas fever symptoms hit hard and suddenly.

Fever – With common colds a mild fever is rarely present. With the flu, fevers are normal and temperatures can reach 101° F or higher and be accompanied by body aches, pains and chills.

Duration – A common cold lasts about ten days but the flu can last as long as three weeks.

The influenza virus also attacks the lungs, which can progress to a serious lung ailment. This is why people with chronic respiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable.

Cold and Flu Prevention

As with any condition the best treatment is prevention. A person with the Flu can expose the virus to other people as far as 6 feet away through droplets spread when they talk, sneeze or cough. If you happen to inhale these droplets or they land on your nose or mouth you are now infected.

Strengthen Your Immune System – Practice healthy living habits like exercising, getting a good night of sleep, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and managing stress. All these habits will help strengthen your immune system naturally and can help you ward off not just a cold or flu but other diseases as well.

Hygiene – If you notice a co-worker or acquaintance appears to be sick, try to keep your distance. Don’t get unnecessarily close. Touching commonly used and contaminated surfaces like doorknobs or handles, keyboards or other digital devices, countertops, etc. can transfer the virus to your hands. Avoid touching your nose or mouth and wash your hands regularly with soap and water several times per day.

If you are sick, be considerate and practice proper cough and sneeze etiquette by using a tissue to cover your mouth and nose and throw it away. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands. Don’t forget to wash your hands after. Consider using a face mask if you must be out in public and your symptoms include frequent coughing or sneezing.

Flu Shot – Each year, medical experts apply research regarding the most common strains to create a new vaccine for the year. Healthcare providers recommend getting a flu shot early in the season to prevent catching the flu. Getting your flu shot ahead of time will give your body time to strengthen its immune system against influenza.

Cold and Flu Treatment

With time and rest, most people recover from colds and the flu on their own. Over the counter medications can provide temporary relief from your symptoms and help you feel better. If you get either illness, stay home except to get medical care and avoid contact with other people to prevent spreading the disease.

There are antiviral drugs that can treat influenza. If you are a person with a higher risk of complications or you feel worried about your condition, contact your medical provider.

Warning Signs of a Flu Emergency

  • fast, troubled breathing or shortness of breath
  • chest or abdomen pain or pressure
  • sudden dizziness
  • strong and persistent vomiting
  • sudden dizziness
  • flu symptoms that improve but then return with fever or worsen

With Infants – In addition to the above symptoms, get medical help quickly if any of these symptoms occur:

  • bluish skin color
  • not waking up or interacting
  • so irritable that they do not want to be held
  • unable to eat or drink
  • no tears when crying
  • significantly fewer wet diapers than normal
  • fever with a rash

For more information download this Flu Guide for Parents from the CDC.




Influenza (flu) – Symptoms and causes


Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your respiratory system — your nose, throat and lungs. Influenza is commonly called the flu, but it’s not the same as stomach “flu” viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting.

For most people, the flu resolves on its own. But sometimes, influenza and its complications can be deadly. People at higher risk of developing flu complications include:

  • Young children under age 5, and especially those under 6 months
  • Adults older than age 65
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Pregnant women and women up to two weeks after giving birth
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Native Americans
  • People who have chronic illnesses, such as asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease and diabetes
  • People who are very obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher

Though the annual influenza vaccine isn’t 100% effective, it’s still your best defense against the flu.

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At first, the flu may seem like a common cold with a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat. But colds usually develop slowly, whereas the flu tends to come on suddenly. And although a cold can be a bother, you usually feel much worse with the flu.

Common signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Aching muscles
  • Chills and sweats
  • Headache
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Eye pain
  • Vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than adults

Related information

COVID-19 and flu: Similarities and differences

When to see a doctor

Most people who get the flu can treat themselves at home and often don’t need to see a doctor.

If you have flu symptoms and are at risk of complications, see your doctor right away. Taking antiviral drugs may reduce the length of your illness and help prevent more-serious problems.

If you have emergency signs and symptoms of the flu, get medical care right away. For adults, emergency signs and symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Ongoing dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Worsening of existing medical conditions
  • Severe weakness or muscle pain

Emergency signs and symptoms in children can include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Blue lips
  • Chest pain
  • Dehydration
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Seizures
  • Worsening of existing medical conditions


Influenza viruses travel through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object — such as a telephone or computer keyboard — and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth.

People with the virus are likely contagious from about a day before symptoms appear until about five days after they start. Children and people with weakened immune systems may be contagious for a slightly longer time.

Influenza viruses are constantly changing, with new strains appearing regularly. If you’ve had influenza in the past, your body has already made antibodies to fight that specific strain of the virus. If future influenza viruses are similar to those you’ve encountered before, either by having the disease or by getting vaccinated, those antibodies may prevent infection or lessen its severity. But antibody levels may decline over time.

Also, antibodies against influenza viruses you’ve encountered in the past may not protect you from new influenza strains that can be very different viruses from what you had before.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of developing the flu or its complications include:

  • Age. Seasonal influenza tends to target children 6 months to 5 years old, and adults 65 years old or older.
  • Living or working conditions. People who live or work in facilities with many other residents, such as nursing homes or military barracks, are more likely to develop the flu. People who are staying in the hospital are also at higher risk.
  • Weakened immune system. Cancer treatments, anti-rejection drugs, long-term use of steroids, organ transplant, blood cancer or HIV/AIDS can weaken your immune system. This can make it easier for you to catch the flu and may also increase your risk of developing complications.
  • Chronic illnesses. Chronic conditions, including lung diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, nervous system diseases, metabolic disorders, an airway abnormality, and kidney, liver or blood disease, may increase your risk of influenza complications.
  • Race. Native American people may have an increased risk of influenza complications.
  • Aspirin use under age 19. People who are younger than 19 years of age and receiving long-term aspirin therapy are at risk of developing Reye’s syndrome if infected with influenza.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnant women are more likely to develop influenza complications, particularly in the second and third trimesters. Women are more likely to develop influenza-related complications up to two weeks after delivering their babies.
  • Obesity. People with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more have an increased risk of flu complications.


If you’re young and healthy, the flu usually isn’t serious. Although you may feel miserable while you have it, the flu usually goes away in a week or two with no lasting effects. But children and adults at high risk may develop complications that may include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma flare-ups
  • Heart problems
  • Ear infections
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome

Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications. For older adults and people with a chronic illness, pneumonia can be deadly.


Flu vaccines at Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic offers flu shots in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.

Learn more about how to get your flu shot at Mayo Clinic

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months or older. The flu vaccine can reduce your risk of the flu and its severity and lower the risk of having serious illness from the flu and needing to stay in the hospital.

Flu vaccination is especially important this season because the flu and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cause similar symptoms. Flu vaccination could reduce symptoms that might be confused with those caused by COVID-19. Preventing the flu and reducing the severity of flu illness and hospitalizations could also lessen the number of people needing to stay in the hospital.

Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine provides protection from the three or four influenza viruses that are expected to be the most common during that year’s flu season. This year, the vaccine will be available as an injection and as a nasal spray.

In recent years, there was concern that the nasal spray vaccine wasn’t effective enough against certain types of flu. However, the nasal spray vaccine is expected to be effective in the 2020-2021 season. The nasal spray still isn’t recommended for some groups, such as pregnant women, children between 2 and 4 years old with asthma or wheezing, and people who have compromised immune systems.

If you have an egg allergy, you can still get a flu vaccine.

Mayo Clinic Minute: Why getting vaccinated for the flu is doubly important this season

Controlling the spread of infection

The influenza vaccine isn’t 100% effective, so it’s also important to take several measures to reduce the spread of infection, including:

  • Wash your hands. Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is an effective way to prevent many common infections. Or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Avoid touching your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow. Then wash your hands.
  • Clean surfaces. Regularly clean often-touched surfaces to prevent spread of infection from touching a surface with the virus on it and then your face.
  • Avoid crowds. The flu spreads easily wherever people gather — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you reduce your chances of infection.

    Also avoid anyone who is sick. And if you’re sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone so that you lessen your chance of infecting others.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both COVID-19 and the flu may be spreading at the same time. Your local health department and the CDC may suggest other precautions to reduce your risk of COVID-19 or the flu. For example, you may need to practice social distancing (physical distancing) and stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from others outside your household. You may also need to wear a cloth face mask when around people outside your household.

Dec. 19, 2020

Differences between a Cold, the Flu, and Allergies

Do you have a Cold, the Flu, or Allergies?

The above table details the symptom differences between all three conditions.

The common symptoms of a cold, flu and allergies are a stuffy or a runny nose, sneezing, a sore throat, a cough, a headache, or even fatigue. Two differing symptoms are a fever or aches/pain, these would not be caused by allergies, but could be due to a cold or the flu. Symptoms of the flu are often more severe than a cold.

While the symptoms are similar, the origin of the conditions are different. A cold and the flu are both caused by different viruses, whereas allergies are caused by your immune system reacting to a trigger. Common inhalant allergy triggers are pollen, dust, mold, pet dander.

See related: Is it a cold? Or is it Allergies?


Another key difference is when and how often patients have these conditions. A cold can be caught 3 or 4 times a year, where as patients are likely only to get the flu once. Allergies are a whole different story, allergies reccur seasonally and repeatedly.

Since external triggers cause allergies, what you are allergic to determines when you begin to feel these symptoms. Those who are allergic to grass and trees are more likely to suffer in the spring, whereas ragweed pollen affects allergy sufferers in the fall. Those who have indoor triggers, like dust, mold, or pet dander, may experience symptoms year round when they are in contact with the allergy trigger.


No one likes getting sick, for common cold prevention patients should practice good handwashing habits, avoid people who have a cold and avoid spreading germs. The CDC recommends everyone over 6 months of age get the influenza vaccine. Allergy symptoms can be prevented by controlling your environment and avoiding triggers when possible.


If you have a cold, we recommend rest, drink lots of fluids, and treat your symptoms until they subside. If you have the flu, you can receive an antiviral drug 24-48 hours after you’ve begun experiencing symptoms. Allergies are treated with avoidance methods, medication to control the symptoms, and allergy shots to treat the cause.

Understanding the differences between these conditions can help you get the treatment you need quickly. If your symptoms return at the same time every year, you may have allergies. We recommend getting an allergy test to identify what allergies you may have.

Talk to your doctor, or schedule an appointment with one of our board-certified allergists today.

Cold or Allergies: Which is Behind Your Sneeze?

The symptoms are similar, but a few key clues can tell you which disease you’re dealing with.

by Featured Provider April Kolb on Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Coughing. Sneezing. Stuffy, runny nose. Fatigue and weakness. When these symptoms hit, you’re miserable and in search of relief.

You might assume it’s just a cold and reach for the cold meds. You might be wrong.

Yeah, these are the main symptoms of the common cold. But they’re also symptoms of seasonal allergies. Outside of cold and flu season, it’s hard to know the difference.

So how can I tell the difference between a cold and allergies?

Cold and allergy symptoms mirror each other, but they result from very different immune responses. The common cold is a virus. Seasonal allergies are your body’s response to exposure to allergens like pollen, grass, mold, dust and ragweed. While symptoms overlap, there are some that are distinct to each condition.

Common Cold and Seasonal Allergy Symptoms


Common Cough Sometimes
Common Runny or Stuffy Nose


Common Sinus Congestion


Common Sneezing Common
Sometimes Fatigue and Weakness Sometimes
Common Sore Throat Sometimes
Rare Itchy, Watery Eyes Common
Sometimes Aches and Pains Never
Sometimes Ear Fullness or Pain Sometimes
Rare Fever Never
Thick and yellow or green Mucus Thin, watery and clear

“It can be difficult to tell the difference — even for providers — because a lot of the typical symptoms overlap between the two,” says April Kolb, DO, family physician at The Iowa Clinic’s Waukee location on Alice’s Road.

More than half of cold and allergy symptoms are shared, but a few can clue you into which one is afflicting you. If you have general body aches and pains, cough up mucus or are running a fever along with your other issues, a cold is the culprit. If your eyes are watering and your nose is too, your allergies are acting up.

Sorting through the symptoms is not always simple. When your mix of symptoms is too confusing to figure out, look instead at when they hit and how long they last. Symptoms that come on suddenly and generally happen at certain times of the year are most likely due to seasonal allergies. And they may last for several weeks until the pollen count or your exposure to allergens drops. A cold can last just as long, but most pass after three to 10 days. Cold symptoms also tend to come on gradually, developing one at a time over the course of a few days.

“Typically allergies last longer than cold symptoms do. Symptoms lingering for one to two weeks or more are consistent with allergies,” Dr. Kolb says.

Not Sure Which Bug Is Bugging You?

Let your doctor decide the best route to relief.

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