Influenza, common cold & stomach “flu”: What’s the difference?

This year’s cold and flu season is still wreaking havoc. Have you come down with symptoms? What do you have and how do you know?

You’ve probably said or heard it all countless times: “The flu is really going around right now.” “I have a nasty cold.” “The stomach flu this year is terrible.”

All of those statements, and any variation of them, equate to some illness that’s knocking people down, keeping kids out of school and making you worry about going to work and catching it.

But it’s important to know exactly which illness you’re hearing and talking about — for a multitude of reasons.

The following is a brief overview of each of the more common, easily spread illnesses — influenza, cold, and stomach virus — to help you figure out what’s going around, what you might have caught and how to get you feeling better quickly.

Common cold

The common cold is a mild respiratory virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people stricken with a cold generally have mild symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat and mild to moderate chest discomfort or cough appearing gradually in the body. A cold will occasionally bring with it fatigue or weakness as the body wears a bit from fighting the mild virus, and you may experience some faint aches with it.

A cold will rarely cause a headache or fever, and chills are uncommon. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations, the CDC says. A steady course of vitamin C (in tablet form as well as foods and liquids), fluids and rest are the most prescribed remedies to beat a cold.

Influenza

Also known simply as “the flu,” influenza mimics some of the symptoms of the common cold but in a more abrupt and harsher manner.

Among the usual symptoms of the flu are a fever, aches, fatigue and weakness, chest discomfort, cough and headache. While runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat do appear as symptoms of the flu occasionally, they’re uncommon and not the primary signs of this illness. Additionally, people afflicted with influenza rarely experience vomiting or diarrhea (though they have been reported in incredibly rare instances).

Influenza can lead to highly serious associated complications. It’s important to seek medical treatment immediately at the onset of these moderate to severe symptoms so professionals can determine the illness, its strain and advise on the best course of treatment. Over-the-counter medications may help temporarily, but they’re generally designed to merely mask symptoms. Your doctor will prescribe you remedies that are a safer bet of getting you on the road to recovery.

Stomach virus

Many call it the “stomach flu,” but gastroenteritis is not associated with the flu or influenza at all. This illness is most often caused by norovirus, rotavirus or food-poisoning (itself caused by a food-borne bacteria).

Symptoms of gastroenteritis include stomach pain and cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Loss of appetite, dizziness, and overall fatigue and weakness are side effects of the most severe symptoms.

Medical treatment isn’t often required with gastroenteritis as its symptoms, though miserable, aren’t serious and usually disappear within 24 hours.

However, symptoms may lead to dehydration and require you to seek medical attention. If vomiting continues or you’re still unable to keep food and liquids down beyond the 24-hour mark, call your doctor immediately.

Cold and Stomach Flu - Jennifer Ellstrom, FNP
Jennifer Ellstrom, FNP

Family Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Ellstrom at Heritage says with any viral illness, a patient’s health background plays a vital role in diagnosing the illness and proper treatment.

“The difference is in your normal state of health,” Ellstrom explains.“If you already have marginal health, a compromised immune system or chronic issues like heart disease, diabetes or COPD, it’s even more important to seek medical attention.”

How quickly a patient seeks medical treatment is similarly crucial.

“We see a vast difference between people who stay home way too long with these symptoms and people who come in early,” Ellstrom says. “Some people come in pretty early and we don’t fault them for that, especially this year when the flu is so much worse.”

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, especially a fever or other serious symptoms, and haven’t yet sought medical attention, make an appointment with your Heritage doctor or visit our Urgent Care Plus. Not a Heritage member? Experience increased patient contact, quick response and coordinated care along with unparalleled medical group benefits. Click here or call (800) 655-9999 today.