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When you are home with a cold, should you say, "Ich bin erkältet." Or "Ich bin krank." I do not understand the difference.

My understanding was that "krank" is used for more serious diseases (e.g. cancer). However, my colleagues always say krank. Furthermore, I have said "erkältet" once or twice and gotten some strange looks (like I had a very serious illness). So based on reactions, I would say that the meaning seems to be reversed.

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    Did you consult a dictionary, what is the difference there between "erkälten" and "krank sein"?
    – Thomas
    May 17, 2018 at 11:23
  • In Germany, you need not disclose the type of sickness when calling in sick. You may volunteer the information or stick to a generic “sick”. See Pollitzer’s answer.
    – Stephie
    May 17, 2018 at 13:27
  • Hint: cold, erkältet :)
    – Carsten S
    May 17, 2018 at 14:37
  • In an office environment, eine Erkältung is quite "dangerous" because it is highly infectious - that might explain the reaction of your coworkers. As to the usage: In most professional environments i worked in, the language employed for informing coworkers and administration was maximally vague, because it should be of no interest to admin what the illness is, and therefore is not communicated so as not to create precedent.
    – bukwyrm
    May 17, 2018 at 15:10
  • In my experience, you have gotten these strange looks because it is - at least in some parts of society - uncommon or even unwanted to skip work when you are "erkältet". Many Germans tend to ignore colds or even consider people that take a day off "weak" or "lazy"
    – Giraffe
    May 17, 2018 at 15:14

4 Answers 4

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Easy, as it translates literally.

In cases where you would say:

I have the cold -> Ich bin erkältet

I am sick -> Ich bin krank

(One exception here, if you want to convey that you have a bad stomach and might throw up it´s: mir ist schlecht / übel )

So this is nothing specific to German language. (It even works with secondary meaning such as that´s just sick! when you find something despicable -> Das ist voll krank!)

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    I am asking because experience suggests to me that this is not the case May 17, 2018 at 13:52
  • @bremen_matt: Could you give an example?
    – Daniel
    May 17, 2018 at 13:53
  • Now that I think of it, there is one exception. I am sick as in I need to throw up will be translated differently. - I´ll edit that in!
    – Daniel
    May 17, 2018 at 13:55
  • In two distinct occasions, I have said "erkältet", and the listener took a step back and generally reacted as if I had the plague May 17, 2018 at 14:00
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    @bremen_matt: Then everything was as it should be. As the common cold is transmitted via airborne droplets, and you don´t want to get too much sick-days, people try not to get infected!
    – Daniel
    May 17, 2018 at 14:02
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One is the generic term of the other.

»erkältet« als Element unter dem Oberbegriff »krank«

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    Ponders: Do we have a minimum length for answers...? (+1)
    – Stephie
    May 17, 2018 at 13:28
  • @Stephie: Eine Mindestlänge für Antworten gibt es bereits (30 Zeichen).
    – Pollitzer
    May 17, 2018 at 14:11
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krank is a word that just means not being healthy/fit/well, like suffering from a disease or being sick. erkältet means having a cold. How those words are related is graphically described in Pollitzer's answer.

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The confusion may come from everyday's colloquial synonymous use of krank and erkältet. People do know that one is a subgroup of the other but since a cold is such a common cause for being ill we use krank und erkältet synonymously and in the same context:

Ich bin leider [krank geworden / erkältet] und möchte heute lieber nicht kommen.
Ich glaube ich [werde krank / habe mich erkältet].
Bist Du [krank / erkältet], oder warum bist Du so blass?

Usually erkältet is used for a minor disease and reserved for a common cold including headaches, cough or rhinitis. If the cold is more severe, and we may have fever in addition there is a tendency toward using krank but there is considerable overlap.

We would however not use just krank for a serious disorder but would say something like er ist (schwer) erkrankt or er leidet an einer (schweren) Krankheit if we do not want to name the disease we suffer from.

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  • One would also use krank if one doesn't want to tell what kind of illness it is. Because there are some diseases which are not that severe but about which nonetheless one may not like to talk.
    – RHa
    May 17, 2018 at 15:30

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