Doctors are used to being asked by patients whether they have the flu or just a cold. Some may reply: If you’re debating going to work, you probably have a cold. When you have the flu, there’s no question you have to stay home.

The same goes for kids and school. Even a child who loves school generally will relent and remain home when she has the flu. It just makes you feel that yucky.

“With the flu, you get sick very quickly,” says Joyce Allers, clinical nurse manager for school health at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Colds are more like two days coming and then you’re sick for a few days.”

Influenza and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have similar symptoms—fever, body aches, fatigue, dry cough—but the symptoms are much stronger, and a few of them are more common, with the flu than a cold.

When you have a cold, you probably won’t have a fever, nor will you experience the extreme body aches and exhaustion common with the flu. A runny or stuffy nose is also common with a cold.

Children who have the flu might have stomach problems and diarrhea. “As a parent, the question you have to ask is, just how bad do they feel?” Allers says. “If they’re feeling wretched, you start to get suspicious that it’s more than the common cold.”

A cold generally doesn’t carry the risk of serious health problems, such as pneumonia or hospitalization, according to the CDC. The flu, on the other hand, can become serious, especially for children, elderly people, pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes.

Check your school’s policies on when to keep a sick child at home. In general, children who have cold symptoms but no fever can go to school. Kids with the flu or a cold with fever should stay home.

It’s hard for kids to steer clear of the common cold, but you can improve their chances of avoiding the flu with an annual vaccine. The CDC recommends flu shots for children 6 months through 18 years of age.

If your child becomes sick with a cold or the flu, the treatments are similar: rest and fluids. In the case of the flu, doctors will sometimes prescribe antiviral medication. For both the flu and colds, antibiotics will not help—they are used to knock out bacterial infections, not viral ones.

Children should not take aspirin for the flu because it may be linked with the neurological disorder Reye’s syndrome. A pediatrician may approve over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, Advil, or Motrin, however. Parents should always consult their child’s pediatrician with any questions about illnesses and appropriate treatment.

Allers recommends plenty of tender loving care for children who have either the flu or a bad cold: warm liquids, pudding, a favorite blanket, a favorite DVD, and lots of love.

Symptom
COLD
FLU

Fever

Rare

Common; often 102 degrees or higher, could last 3-4 days

Headache

Rare

Common

Aches

Rare

Common; often severe

Fatigue

Mild

Sever; could last 2 to 3 weeks

Extreme Exhaustion

Never

Common

Stuffy Nose

Common

Sometimes

Sneezing

Common

Sometimes

Sore throat

Common

Sometimes

Cough

Common; mild to moderate

Common; can be severe

Complications

Sinus congestion, earache

Bronchitis, pneumonia

Source: National Institutes of Health

 

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.