Cold vs. Flu

Last Updated : 09/15/20183 min read

It may be hard to tell if you have a cold vs. flu, because symptoms are similar. It can be hard to tell what you have when you’re feeling under the weather, making it harder to get the treatment you need.

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Cold vs. flu: what’s the difference?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colds and flus are both respiratory conditions. Symptoms may overlap, but the illnesses are caused by different viruses.

If you’re ever unsure whether you have a cold vs. the flu, keep in mind that flu symptoms tend to be worse and more serious. For example, the flu can sometimes lead to complications such as pneumonia, and even hospitalization or death, according to the CDC. Adults age 65 years and older at higher risk of serious flu complications.

If you’re not sure whether you have a cold vs. the flu, it’s hard to tell from just the symptoms, since many are similar. And, to add to the cold vs. flu confusion, allergies often share symptoms with both conditions. However, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), allergies often cause itchy or watery eyes, which isn’t a symptom of colds or flus.

If you aren’t sure what you have, there are tests available that must be done within the first few days you contract the virus to determine if you have the flu.

Cold vs. flu symptoms

This comparison chart may help break down some of the similarities and differences between cold vs. flu symptoms.

Cold vs. flu symptoms chart*

Symptom Cold Flu
Sore throat Often Occasionally
Coughing Mild or moderate  cough Often; may be severe
Fatigue Occasionally Often; may last two to three weeks
Congestion Often Occasionally
Sneezing Often Occasionally
Body aches Mild Often; can be severe
Headache Rarely Often
Fever Rarely Often, may be a high temperature lasting three to four days

*Information taken from National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus, “Is it a Cold or the Flu?”

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Cold vs. flu treatment and prevention

Once you’ve narrowed down whether you have a cold vs. the flu, you and your doctor can determine treatment options for your illness. With both conditions, it’s important to stay hydrated and get enough rest according to NIH.

NIH advices that cold vs. flu treatment options may include:

  • Cold treatment: decongestants, and antihistamines may all treat symptoms of the common cold.
  • Flu treatment: the flu can be treated with antiviral medications. Pain relievers (such as ibuprofen) may reduce symptoms like body aches and fever.

To prevent the common cold, minimize contact with anyone infected with a cold and wash your hands often (especially before eating). To prevent the flu, a seasonal flu shot can lower your risk of contracting the virus.

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