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Although colds and flu share some of the same symptoms—coughs, sore throats, nasal congestion and muscle aches—they’re caused by entirely different viruses, and flu symptoms are usually more severe. “A cold tends to be more upper respiratory, with nasal congestion, sore throat and earache,” says Susan Debin, M.D., a family doctor in private practice in Orange, California. “When you get into the flu, it tends to be more in the chest.”
Fever is another tip-off. With flu, your temperature may shoot up to 101°F or higher within a few hours, while a cold may not cause much of a fever at all. In a study of 139 adults with colds, for example, fewer than 1 percent had fevers above 99.6°F. (Maybe that’s why they call it a cold.)
Perhaps the main difference between colds and flu is the severity of the illness. Flu tends to be far more uncomfortable—and dangerous, experts say. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, flu in this country is responsible for about 15,000 deaths a year. In addition, some flu strains have been frighteningly “hot.” In 1918, for example, a supervirulent strain of flu killed about 21 million people worldwide.
If you’re otherwise good health, of course, getting a cold or flu is unlikely to have dire consequences. The worst of the illness will pass within a few days, although you may have some residual pain and fatigue for a week or two longer.

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