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Do I Have the Flu?

Updated on January 3, 2020
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Although not in the medical field, medical topics fascinate this author. Liz urges folks with any medical issues to see their doctors.

Cover that cough or sneeze!
Cover that cough or sneeze! | Source

Confusion With Symptoms

The common cold is certainly not fun; its physical symptoms can be maddeningly uncomfortable. No one likes to be sick, no matter the ailment. Allergies can have similar symptoms to a cold; this form of allergy is known as "allergic rhinitis," for its tendency to cause a runny nose and sneezing, much like many cold viruses.

The ordinary cold, it can be said, "...will last a week if you treat it; 7 days if you don't." That is to say, it is self-limiting, and for that week, you may be miserable for part of it, but it won't last much beyond that unless there are complications.

Such complications can include bronchitis or pneumonia, but those rarely happen in otherwise healthy people. However, astmatics and those with seasonal allergies such as hay fever may also be at risk.

With all the media attention on the flu, and emphasis on getting the flu shot, confusion and worry arises over how to tell if you have a common cold or the flu. "The flu" is a bit of a catch-all term for similar illnesses, and there is more than one variety. There is a milder flu, more seasonal in nature, and there is the much-publicized "H1N1" also known as "Swine Flu."

Extreme Details About Swine Flu

The entire history and scope of the H1N1, or "Swine Flu" virus is given in an article on Web MD.

Seasonal flu is less serious than swine flu, although serious complications can occur, especially in the elderly, very young, and those with compromised immune systems. These complications are usually the pneumonia and bronchitis that are much more rare with the common cold.

With the seasonal flu, you will be much more uncomfortable than with a cold; with H1N1, you will be very sick, and in some cases will require being hospitalized.

Chart Your Symptoms

Regular Flu
Swine Flu
Common Cold
Productive Cough
Dry Cough
may be present for asthmatics
Mild to Moderate Body Aches
Slight Body Aches
Severe Body Aches
Mild Fatigue
Moderate to Severe Fatigue
Smptoms Develop Over a Few Days to a Week
Symptoms Start Suddenly
if present, will normally be a sinus headache
Sore Throat
Mild to Moderate Chest Discomfort/Pressure
Severe Chest Discomfort/Pressure
Itchy eyes, nose, throat
Watering eyes
Stuffy nose; can't smell

To Vaccinate or Not?

There is much pressure by the medical establishment and media attention on the idea of getting annual vaccinations for both the H1N1 flu and for pneumonia.

While getting vaccinated is a matter of personal choice, there are some for whom it is virtually mandatory. This list includes the elderly; the very young; asthmatics; and those with weak immune systems, such as heart patients or AIDS patients.

Medical professionals of any stripe are also usually required by their employers to get a flu shot; those who refuse usually have the option of wearing a mask at work during the entire flu season. So, if you go to your doctor or pharmacy, and see workers wearing masks, it does not necessarily mean they are sick; it may only mean that they preferred not to get the vaccine.

Understand, there is a 'carrier' aspect, in which some people can be exposed to, and transmit an illness without becoming sick themselves. This is the reason for the masks, in addition to protecting themselves from members of the public who may be ill and transmit the disease.

But I Already Got Vaccinated Last Year!

As each year brings new consumer information bulletins, and pushes for vaccination, it is worth noting that the flu virus itself is constantly mutating, creating new strains.

Thus, the prior year's vaccine is no longer effective, and is the reason for needing a new shot each year before flu season.

Incubation Period

The incubation period refers to the amount of time between exposure to a virus and appearance of symptoms.

This is not to be confused with the timing for the onset of symptoms, which may range from a few days to a week with the common cold and seasonal flu, and the H1N1 or swine flu symptoms come on suddenly.

It is almost impossible to determine the point of exposure. It may be from being near someone who coughed or sneezed without covering their mouth and nose; it may be from touching a surface previously touched by someone with the illness who had just sneezed or coughed and covered it with their hand, instead of the currently preferred practice of covering with the inside of the elbow joint,* which is not used to touch faucets, grocery carts, and doorknobs.

But when did that happen, and where? Hard to say. But the time between that occurrence and the time when you notice symptoms is the incubation period. You can backtrack it in your mind, but will probably not be able to pinpoint the exact moment or circumstances in which you were exposed. Keep in mind, a person is contagious for at least a day prior to exhibiting symptoms.

On one occasion when my late husband was in the emergency room, the doctor gave him a "fist-bump" instead of the traditional handshake greeting, saying that it spreads fewer germs.

*(Personally, if I have to cough or sneeze in public, I prefer to lift the neck of my shirt, and sneeze or cough down the inside of my own shirt, thus preventing any possible outward contamination.)

Pretty Disgusting, Right?

A sneeze captured with a high-speed camera shows just how much and how far contagion can spread if the sneeze is not covered up
A sneeze captured with a high-speed camera shows just how much and how far contagion can spread if the sneeze is not covered up | Source

But Maybe it's Only My Allergies...

Well, possibly. But most allergy sufferers are well familiar with their particular variety of allergy, and how it affects them seasonally.

In a year such as we had in the winter of 2013-2014, where much of the Western United States was under a drought, with many days of above-normal temperatures, the allergy season can become extended. Allergy symptoms in the middle of winter might indeed be mistaken for a cold.

Generally speaking, however, allergy season lasts longer than a cold. So, if you feel fine, other than the sneezing, watery, itchy eyes common to allergies, you probably do not have a cold or the flu.

As always, though, if in doubt, check with your doctor or nurse practitioner.


This information is in no way intended as a substitute for medical care, or diagnosis by a medical professional; It is merely an attempt to alleviate some confusion that may occur between many similar symptoms.

Please note that I am not a doctor or any other kind of medical professional.

I am merely a layperson with an interest in the health field. The information I have presented is a compilation from my research, data from the medical facility I use, and personal experience.

If you feel you have any of these symptoms that are causing you lingering problems, or severe symptoms that come on quickly, see your doctor at the earliest possible opportunity, or, go to the emergency room if you feel suddenly very ill and weak.


"Clinical Signs and Symptoms of Influenza: Prevention & Control Recommendations." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 May 2016. Web

.DeNoon, Daniel J. "Raise Your Flu IQ." WebMD. WebMD, 2003.

Web."Different Types of Flu." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web.

"Types of Influenza Viruses." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 27 Sept. 2017. Web.

Have you had the flu?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2014 Liz Elias


Submit a Comment
  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi Maggie.L,

    I know what you mean. It's almost as if "the flu" has become a catch-all for any kind of "I don't feel good" ailment, and often, a false excuse to beg off of work or school.

    I'm glad you found the article of use; thanks much for the votes.

  • Maggie.L profile image


    6 years ago from UK

    Hi DzyMsLizzy,

    I constantly hear people saying that they have the flu when it is probably just the common cold. I think the flu would probably have you confined to bed or at least the house for a couple of days. I like your check list on the chart. I've actually never had the flu and hopefully never will get it. Really useful information here. Voted up and useful.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, FlourishAnyway,

    I declined the flu shot for years; I can't stand shots/needles.

    However, given that my husband is a heart failure patient, and I have now morphed into the "elderly" status of 66 years, I was sort of forced to break down and get one this season.

    I was kind of miffed, because I ended up getting 3 shots that day! The flu shot, the pneumonia shot, and a tetanus booster! Grrr...and then, was told to return in 3 months for a shingles vaccine. Oh, dear! Hubby got off with just his flu shot and tetanus booster, as he'd been given the pneumonia one during one of his hospital stays. Sigh.

    At any rate, I'm glad you found the article useful. Thanks very much for commenting and adding the importance sanitation.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image


    6 years ago from USA

    This answers common questions and should be very useful! I particularly like your table that sums it all up. I typically choose to turn down the flu shot and end up am fine, but I do exercise considerable precaution with hand-washing and avoiding public areas during extreme outbreaks. I didn't know the bit about health professionals who wear masks. Stay well!


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