Symptoms of Cold and Flu

People often confuse the common cold and the flu. It's understandable since both are primarily respiratory viruses and many of their symptoms—stuffiness, cough, sore throat, for example—are so similar. In general, though, cold symptoms tend to be milder than those of the flu, and influenza is a much more serious illness.

The flu claims thousands of lives each year, especially for those in high-risk groups, so it's important to know how its symptoms differ from those of the common cold.

Frequent Symptoms

The symptoms in common for cold and flu are congestion, cough, headache, and, in children, fever. But they differ in other symptoms and in the course of the illness. Although the symptoms of the common cold and the flu may look similar, the key difference is really how they make you feel. Most people feel bad when they have a cold, but can typically still function. With the flu, it is hard to even get out of bed.

Symptoms of Cold

The common cold can cause different symptoms in different people. Many types of viruses cause colds so that may play a role in your symptoms. If your cold is caused by a rhinovirus but your friend's cold is caused by an adenovirus, you may not have the exact same symptoms, but they will still be pretty similar.

Common Cold Symptoms

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Sore Throat
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Fever (rare in adults but may occur in children)

Recognizing the symptoms of the common cold is important for a few reasons. If you realize what symptoms are bothering you the most, you will know which medications will help relieve them. You may also prevent unnecessary doctor visits if you know that you have a cold. Since your doctor cannot cure your cold, there is no reason to see them unless your symptoms last longer than two weeks.

If your symptoms do last longer than a week or two—or if you start to feel like you are recovering and then suddenly get worse—it's important to see your doctor and find out if you have developed another infection. Secondary infections like ear infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia are common complications of both colds and the flu. Since these illnesses may need different treatments, you should talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Rare Symptoms

Some symptoms are uncommon in colds as opposed to flu, and vice versa. With colds, it is less common to have fever (if you're an adult), significant body aches, chills, or headache.

Complications/Sub-Group Indications

People with asthma are at higher risk of an asthma attack with a cold. If you have other lung conditions such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema or chronic heart disease you are likely to have your symptoms worsened for weeks after you have otherwise recovered from a cold. This can include a persistent cough. Sinus infections and ear infections can also follow a cold.

Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications that can be the result of a cold. This can be due to the virus itself or bacterial infection of the weakened person's lungs.

When to See a Doctor or Go to the Hospital

While a cold is one of the most common complaints seen by doctors, it often isn't necessary to get medical help for the common cold. Using one of our step-by-step symptom guides can help you evaluate each symptom to determine its cause, when you might need to see a doctor, and treatment options:

You should always see a doctor if:

  • You are elderly and have a severe cold or flu symptoms.
  • A young child has a severe cold or flu symptoms.
  • You have a temperature of 100.4 F.
  • You have trouble breathing or chest pains.
  • You can't keep any food or fluids down.
  • You have a sore throat, and it hurts to swallow.
  • A cough is persistent and is either hacking or productive (producing phlegm or mucus) as this could be a sign of serious conditions including pneumonia to whooping cough.
  • If your symptoms worsen or persist for more than five days.

A Word From Verywell

Colds and the flu are some of the most common illnesses Americans deal with each year. They are often confused with one another but are actually very different infections. Knowing the differences between the two can help you decide how to treat your symptoms when they start and know whether or not you need to seek medical attention.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Arroll B. Common cold. BMJ Clin Evid. 2011;2011:1510.

  2. Rello J, Pop-Vicas A. Clinical review: primary influenza viral pneumonia. Crit Care. 2009;13(6):235. doi:10.1186/cc8183

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