Signs and Symptoms of Cold and Flu

People often confuse the common cold and the flu. It's understandable since the symptoms of the two are so similar. They are both primarily respiratory viruses that can leave you feeling pretty lousy.

But there are some key differences. Influenza, or the flu, is a much more serious illness than the common cold. It claims thousands of lives each year, so it's pretty important to know how it differs from the common cold.

Symptoms of Cold

View common symptoms of a cold.

The common cold can cause different symptoms in different people. Many different 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. Most people experience:

  • 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 him/her 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.

Symptoms of Flu

Recognizing symptoms of the flu is even more important than recognizing symptoms of a cold. Although they are similar, you should take note of a few key differences. The severity of your symptoms will usually give away the fact that you have the flu and not a cold. Colds often develop slowly—you start to feel a little worn out, then you may start sniffing, and then the full-blown congestion, sore throat, and coughing start.

The flu, on the other hand, hits you full force. You may feel fine when you go to bed and then wake up feeling absolutely terrible. Fever, body aches, and cough come on suddenly and painfully. Each year, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the US population gets the flu. The most common flu symptoms include:

  • Fever (not everyone with the flu will have a fever, but most do)
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Exhaustion
  • Mild congestion
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (uncommon in adults but occurs more frequently in children)

Quickly realizing that you may have the flu is vital. Seeking treatment from your doctor within the first 48 hours could make the difference in the length and severity of your flu. Also, it's important to know that the flu is not a stomach virus. Many people refer to gastroenteritis as "the flu." But if your primary symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, it is highly unlikely you actually have the flu. Influenza is the virus that causes the flu and it is a respiratory virus. There are several viruses and bacteria that can cause the "stomach flu," but none of them are influenza.

Common Cold vs. Flu

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.

It's important to note that the flu can be prevented. Flu vaccines are recommended for nearly everyone over six months old in the US. Because the flu virus can mutate and change, the vaccine must be updated yearly, meaning you will need to get vaccinated every flu season.

Most people don't like shots, but the minor pain and inconvenience of getting a yearly flu vaccine far outweigh the misery of being sick with the virus for a week or longer. Although the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, people who get the vaccine and still get the flu are less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. Symptoms are also typically milder than they are in those who don't get the vaccine.

There are plenty of flu vaccine options available now. Make it a point to find the one that is right for you and get vaccinated every year. If you do get sick with the flu, there are treatment options available. You can take over-the-counter medications to help with your common cold and flu symptoms. But if you have influenza, there are prescription antiviral medicines that can shorten the duration and severity of the illness. They must be started as soon as your symptoms appear, so contacting your doctor as soon as possible after you notice flu symptoms is important.

Not everyone needs to take antiviral medicines like Tamiflu, but those who are in high-risk groups can really benefit from them. If you are unable to get a flu vaccine, you may want to talk to your doctor about taking Tamiflu if you are exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with the flu.

Evaluate Your Symptoms

Still not sure if you have a cold or the flu? These step-by-step guides will help you evaluate each symptom to determine its possible cause, when you might need to see a doctor, and treatment options:

These symptoms will typically all resolve on their own with time, but that doesn't mean you have to experience them with no relief. There are over-the-counter medicines that can provide temporary relief from your cold and flu symptoms as well as non-medication remedies that may help you feel better:

Unfortunately, there are also many products out there that claim to help with your symptoms that really have no scientific basis or proof to back up their claims. It's hard to know what to believe. We have looked into some of the most common of these remedies to help you sort fact from fiction:

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
  • Common Cold.
  • Flu.
  • Flu Symptoms & Severity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published May 26, 2016.
  • Preventive Steps. Seasonal Influenza. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published May 25, 2016.