Does my child have the common cold, seasonal flu or H1N1?

By Marvin Harper, MD, Chief Medical Information Officer at Children’s Hospital Boston

It can be difficult to tell the difference between seasonal flu,  H1N1 and the common cold.  Here are some features you can use to help spot the differences:

Symptoms include stuffy nose and congestion, and usually last three to five days.

Seasonal flu
Symptoms include dry cough, fever, painful body aches, possible nausea and diarrhea, severe fatigue, respiratory problems and dehydration.

Symptoms are the same as the seasonal flu, and just like seasonal flu, young children and those with weakened immune systems may experience more severe illness (pneumonia, respiratory failure and death have been reported).

The major difference between H1N1 and the seasonal flu? The virus that causes H1N1 is quite different from the influenza virus to which many people already have some immune protection, due to prior disease or vaccination. As a result, H1N1 is easier to acquire and may cause more symptoms than would typically be experienced with the seasonal influenza virus.

Remember, the best way to avoid getting the cold and the flu (seasonal and H1N1) is to wash your hands, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and get your seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccinations as soon as they are available.

It is not generally important to specifically determine whether your child has H1N1 or the seasonal flu, but if your child is less than 2 years of age, or in a group that is at increased risk from influenza infections, you should contact your care provider to discuss whether anti-viral treatment may be helpful.

For more information on Flu (seasonal and H1N1) from Children’s Hospital Boston, visit

8 thoughts on “Does my child have the common cold, seasonal flu or H1N1?

  1. Are Sr. citizens encouraged to get the H1N1 vaccine ? and if so is there a cut off age when the vaccine is no longer recommended ? Also trying to determine the difference between the H1N1 and pneumonia/ if it possible for the average lay person to differentiate?

    1. Hi Susan,

      Senior citizens are encouraged to get the H1N1 vaccine. gives a great explanation why here. The CDC gives a list of what symptoms to look out for in case you think you have H1N1. Children’s Hospital Boston also has a Flu Information Center that might be able to answer any other flu-related questions you might have.

  2. My two sons, ages 7 yrs and 26 yrs old, had confirmed H1N1 flu in May 2009. Should they still receive the vaccine? Youngest has moderate/severe asthma and oldest has developmental delays/Autism.
    Thank you.

  3. Hi my wife was very sick with what we thought was a upper resperatory infection for about a week and then on Monday of this week my 3 yr old started coughing. He seemed to be fine other than a nasty congested cough. Yesterday he actually seemed to get worse not better as his cough and congestion is just as bad and then he has also had a fever. He is drinking plenty of fluid and eating “ok”, interacting and playing still for the most part but I am worried because I have been reading that H1N1 can present itself this way? Should I take him to the ER or wait until Monday to see our pediatrician? thanks

    1. Hi Eric,
      Does your pediatrician’s office have weekend hours or a call-in service, or is your pediatrician page-able? If so, it sounds like you should call them to get their advice. They should be able to help you sort out what the best next step is.
      Thanks for your question and I hope everyone feels better soon!

  4. Is it ok to get the h1n1 vaccine if I have a common cold with no flu like symptoms?

    1. Hi Peter,

      The CDC recommends that if you are moderately or severely ill, you might be advised to wait until you recover before getting the vaccine. If you have a mild cold or other illness, there is usually no need to wait.

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