In the winter literally everyone seems to be getting sick. Your coworker won’t stop coughing and your kid keeps coming home from school a snotty mess, and a box of tissues barely lasts you one day.

Contrary to popular belief, cold weather does not make you sick — but respiratory viruses (namely, influenza) do tend to peak during the fall and winter. In the US, flu season typically lasts from October to March. However, a nasty case of sniffles and aches during the winter doesn’t always mean you have the flu. Often, it’s just a cold, which you can get any time of the year.

The common cold and flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses that can make you feel miserable, but they are caused by different viruses. Some flu symptoms may mimic a cold, but the flu tends to be much more serious and deadly — so it’s important to know the difference between these two illnesses. Obviously, only a doctor can diagnose you, but knowing how to recognize symptoms is always helpful.

So how can you tell if your symptoms mean you have a cold or the flu, and what is the best treatment? We spoke to Dr. Tania Elliott, an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, to find out.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. If you have questions or concerns about your personal health, talk to a health care provider.

What is the common cold?

The common cold — often called a head cold, chest cold, or just “a cold” — is an acute viral infection in the throat and nasal passages. Many different viruses cause colds (hundreds, actually) but rhinoviruses are the most common culprit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Typical cold symptoms are a runny nose, headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, and less often (and usually mild), body aches. A cold will typically last from five to seven days and sometimes up to 10 days, Elliott told BuzzFeed News. Colds are often relatively mild and go away on their own, but over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers and decongestants can help relieve the symptoms.

As the name suggests, colds are pretty, well, common. Adults typically get anywhere from two to three colds each year, according to the CDC. Colds don’t usually lead to complications, but they can be serious for people with weak immune systems or underlying respiratory illnesses, such as asthma. Occasionally, colds can lead to secondary bacterial infections (more on that in a bit).

Categories: Health