In Brief: How do you know whether it's flu?

Published: January, 2010

On the misery index, flu ordinarily outdoes the common cold. The fatigue, fever, headaches, and muscle aches — they're much worse than the stuffed-up head and nose of the common cold. And the H1N1 virus may add vomiting and diarrhea to the usual flu woes.

Still, especially at the beginning stages, it can be hard to tell whether it's flu or "just a cold." Doctors can test for the presence of a flu virus but usually do so only if patients are grievously ill and may need to be admitted to the hospital, if they haven't been already. Quick recognition is important because antiviral drugs are most effective during the first couple of days of symptoms. And this year especially, you'll want to stay home if flu is a possibility. So here's a quick side-by-side comparison of flu and cold symptoms to help you figure out what's ailing you:

To continue reading this article, you must log in.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise

New subscriptions to Harvard Health Online are temporarily unavailable. Click the button below to learn about our other subscription offers.

Learn More »