Health Watch - Cold or Flu?

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Cooler temperatures often bring with them more illness. But which illness is it?

Cold and flu season kicks into full swing when fall arrives. If you get sick, knowing which illness you have could be important. The first thing to remember is that if you’re sick to your stomach, it’s not the flu. What people often call stomach flu is caused by a bacterial or viral infection of the digestive tract.

The real flu, influenza, is entirely different. This is a severe upper respiratory infection caused by a specific kind of virus. While the so-called stomach flu may make you miserable for a while, doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say influenza is potentially deadly. Dr. Paul Pepe, UT Southwestern’s chairman of emergency medicine, says flu can be extremely dangerous and even deadly for elderly adults or people with weakened immune systems. Influenza is known for striking rapidly – where you go from feeling fine to feeling very sick in a short amount of time – and causing high fever and body aches. The best way to deal with the flu is to prevent it by having a flu shot every year.

That’s different from a cold. Colds are caused by a variety of viruses and have varied symptoms, which often include sniffling, sneezing, nasal congestion, headache and mild fever.

Those symptoms are similar to allergy symptoms, which also may strike at this time of year. Allergies may cause runny nose, congestion, sneezing, itching and watery eyes. A cold will usually clear up within a few days, but allergies will linger.