Flu vs a Cold: What’s the Difference?

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flu vs coldGetting sick is just about one of the worst things that can ruin a perfectly good week, but knowing the difference between the flu vs a cold can help ease that moment of dread once you realize that something is invading your body.

But how do you tell the difference between a cold vs the flu? Many people use both words interchangeably, but that’s wrong because while these illnesses share some symptoms, they are in fact quite different.

The flu will knock you out suddenly like a fighter in a boxing ring, and you may not get back up for seven days.

A cold comes on progressively over a few days, and will drag you down, drain you of energy, make you sneeze, give you a runny nose that might get raw, and make you feel generally irritated.

It takes you down a peg, but for the most part you can manage your daily routine. The flu makes you feel much worse, though how much worse depends on how severe the symptoms are; the flu can land you in the hospital, after all.


A cold gives you something of an early warning that it’s coming, but by the time you know you have the flu, you’ll have headed home to drop into bed with the covers tucked under your chin. With this article, we will help you to tell the cold and flu symptoms (1) apart, including a symptoms chart for the cold vs the flu.

What Is the Flu?

Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a viral infection caused by the influenza virus (A or B). It’s a respiratory illness that affects the chest. The flu is contagious, so it can and does spread rapidly from person to person through contact, or by inhaling airborne particles, by way of coughing and sneezing. This is why it’s important to wash our hands frequently and avoid people we know have the flu. If you have the flu, do everyone a favor and stay home until you are no longer contagious (up to seven days after symptoms have emerged).

In healthy adults, and without any complications, the flu usually lasts from three to 10 days, but can be as long as 14 days and possibly longer in the elderly if there are complications. In persistent cases, and in the weak and elderly, the flu can hang around for up to two weeks after symptoms disappear. If complications do arise, then it will last even longer. Symptoms such as fever, headache, and body aches last a few days and then gradually taper off. (2)

flu vs cold symptoms

Symptoms of the Flu

This is an awful illness to get because it puts you out of commission for a good week. When you have this virus, you will have some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fever of 101 or higher (but not everyone gets a fever);
  • Feeling feverish/chills, that bizarre combination where you have five blankets on and are wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, and still feel cold to the point where your teeth are chattering;
  • Cough;
  • Sore throat;
  • Runny or stuffy nose, but not always (more common with a cold);
  • Muscle or body aches, and they can be quite debilitating;
  • Headaches; and
  • Fatigue (tiredness).

Some people experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common with children.

Complications from the flu include pneumonia, sinus and ear infections, and bronchitis. If you still aren’t feeling well after two weeks, you should visit your doctor to rule out the latter possibilities.

Signs of a Cold

Symptoms of a cold are normally seen above the neck. Rhinovirus and adenovirus are usually the causes of the common cold, but there are more than 200 other viruses that can cause it.

If you have a cold, the following symptoms will likely show up at some point:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • A cough
  • Persistent or intermittent headache
  • Body aches
  • Some fatigue, but not the flattening kind of fatigue that would be experienced during the flu

You will feel run down as opposed to run over. This is a major difference to note when it comes to determining cold vs flu symptoms. The flu will bring on extreme fatigue; just moving will be a chore.

The Flu vs a Cold: Symptoms Chart

Symptom Cold Flu
Fatigue Sometimes Yes, moderate to severe
Aches Sometimes Yes, and can be quite severe
Sore Throat Often Rare
Fever Sometimes Typical
Sneezing and Stuffy Nose Typical Rare

How to Treat a Flu Versus a Cold

So, what do you do when it comes to the treatment of the flu vs a cold? The best way to treat both a flu and cold is to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and to stay as comfortable as possible by taking over-the-counter pain relief for headaches, body aches, and nasal congestion (for a cold). There’s not much you can do other than to simply wait it out until the virus leaves your system. Here are a few points to consider for both:

  • There are no medications—either over-the-counter or prescribed by a doctor—that will “treat” the common cold or flu (3). You won’t be prescribed antibiotics because antibiotics are for bacterial infections, not viral infections. If complications from the flu result and you end up with an ear infection or pneumonia, then those will be treated with antibiotics. But it isn’t the flu being treated with antibiotics, it’s the complication—this is an important distinction many people are confused by.
  • Viral infections, as awful as it is to hear, simply need to run their course, which can last up to 14 days with the flu and seven days with a cold. If a sinus infection develops, then antibiotics might be prescribed to clear up the resulting infection, but as with the flu it’s not being prescribed to treat the cold, only the by-product of that cold.
  • For the flu, there are prescription-only anti-viral medications, Tamiflu and Relenza, that can be administered, but the catch is they have to be taken within 48 hours of the symptoms presenting themselves. If you notice it in time and manage to see a doctor, you might be lucky enough to take advantage of these prescriptions. Note they don’t cure the flu; they will only minimize its effects. But everyone responds differently.
  • For a cold, over-the-counter medications to relieve runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, and low-grade fever, plus home remedies, are the best options. The fact is, nothing is going to make it go away, and the same with the flu; instead, what you’re looking for is something to help alleviate the symptoms while the virus runs its course.
  • There are also homeopathic remedies you can take to shorten the duration. Visit your health food store and talk to someone there for recommendations.
  • Drink hot water, honey, and lemon for both colds and flus. The honey will soothe a sore throat and the lemon will help fight off infections because it’s high in vitamin C.

Best Prevention Methods for the Common Cold and the Flu

Sometimes getting a cold or flu (4) is inevitable, despite your best efforts to avoid them, but following the simple guidelines below can improve your chances of dodging those viral bullets.

1. Wash Your Hands Frequently

wash your hands

Shaking hands with someone with a cold, or touching something they have touched, will more effectively transfer the virus than if they had coughed on you. For the sake of your family, friends, and co-workers, wash your hands frequently when you’re around someone with a cold. This will reduce your chances of getting it, and will benefit those around you.

2. Avoid Touching Your Eyes, Nose, and Mouth

avoid touching

Rubbing your face and eyes with dirty hands that may be covered in germs is a surefire way to get a cold. Your eyes have liquid in them, and are a perfect entry point for germs to invade the body. Keep your hands away from your face.

3. Take Vitamin D

vitamin d

This vitamin helps the immune system respond to viruses and bacteria.

4. Take Vitamin C

vitamin c

Vitamin C can help boost your immune system. How much should you take? Well, the honest yet odd answer is that you take as much as you can tolerate. For some people this can be as little as 1,500 milligrams a day; for others, it can be as much as 10,000 milligrams a day. Vitamin C in large doses won’t hurt you; your body will simply remove what it doesn’t need via urine and will let you know when you’ve had too much. Basically, if diarrhea kicks in, you’ve hit your limit, so back off.

5. Do What Your Mother Told You

do what your mother told you

When it comes to the flu vs a cold, the best things to do are to drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest, eat healthy food, and don’t drink milk. Milk aids in mucus production and that’s the last thing you want to do when you have a cold.

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Adrian Newman, B.A.

About the Author, Browse Adrian's Articles

Adrian has been working in the information publishing world since 1997. But when it comes to health information, he’s a self-admitted late bloomer. A couch potato since pre-school, Adrian was raised on TV, video games and a lifestyle that led to childhood obesity that followed him well into adulthood. But when he hit his forties, he decided enough was enough. He had a family to take care of and his days of overeating, under-exercising and inactivity were going to lead... Read Full Bio »