Cold vs. Flu: How to Tell the Difference Between Cold and Flu Symptoms

young woman wrapped up in blanket on couch blowing nose with a tissue
December 6, 2023

Being sick is never fun, and it can be difficult to tell what exactly it is you’re sick with. Both the common cold and the flu become more commonly spread around the same time of the year, so either one is a likely culprit. Keep reading to find out how to tell the difference between cold and flu symptoms so you can figure out which illness you’re dealing with.

What’s the Difference Between Cold and Flu Viruses?

multi-colored viruses

Both the common cold and the flu are respiratory infections caused by viruses. However, they are each caused by different types of viruses. The flu is caused by strains of influenza viruses, the most common of which are influenza A and influenza B. The common cold, on the other hand, can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. The most common cold viruses are rhinoviruses, which account for 10 to 40 percent of cases of the common cold. Other common cold viruses include respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and coronaviruses. Overall, cold viruses tend to cause similar symptoms. That’s why the best way to tell the difference between cold and flu lies in the symptoms they cause.

What Are Common Cold Symptoms?

When you catch a cold, your symptoms will often start with a sore throat. This will typically go away after a day or two. Then, nasal congestion and runny nose follow. For the first few days, nasal secretions are watery. Later, the mucus becomes thicker and darker. You will likely develop a cough by day four or five. It’s not common for adults to develop a fever from a cold, but a mild fever is possible. Children are more likely to experience a fever when sick with a cold.

How Long Do Cold Symptoms Last?

young boy blowing nose into a tissue

Symptoms of a cold typically last for about a week. You are most contagious for the first three days that you have cold symptoms, which means you can spread the virus to others. That’s why it’s important to stay home and rest when you start feeling sick. If cold symptoms do not start to improve after about a week, it could mean you have a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections require antibiotics prescribed by a doctor in order to get better. Another possibility if you do not see your symptoms improving after a week is allergic rhinitis, or hay fever. Allergies can cause cold-like symptoms that last longer than a cold.

What Are Flu Symptoms?

Flu symptoms differ from cold symptoms, which is why looking at your symptoms is the best way to tell the difference between cold and flu. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe than cold symptoms, and they come on much more quickly. Symptoms that often accompany the flu include sore throat, headache, congestion, cough, muscle and body aches, and fever. In children, the flu may cause an upset stomach with vomiting and diarrhea.

How Long Do Flu Symptoms Last?

young girl getting her temperature taken with a thermometer

When you have the flu, most of your symptoms will gradually improve over the course of two to five days. However, many people continue to feel run down for a week or longer. While a common cold’s symptoms start gradually, the flu comes on suddenly with little warning. The flu often lasts for a shorter period than a cold, but you will likely feel more sick during this time than you would with a cold. Sometimes the flu can cause complications such as pneumonia. If your fever comes back after having been gone for a couple days or you notice shortness of breath, make sure to let your doctor know as these may be signs of pneumonia.

Difference Between Cold and Flu Symptoms: Which Do I Have?

The biggest difference between cold and flu symptoms is fever. If you want to determine whether you have a cold or the flu, take your temperature. Both a common cold and flu can cause similar symptoms such as nasal congestion, coughs, sore throat, and malaise, but a cold rarely causes a fever above 101 degrees. If you have the flu, you will likely start with a fever and feel miserable right away. Body and muscle aches are also most commonly associated with the flu, so pay attention to whether you are experiencing these to know if you have a cold or the flu.

Protect Yourself From the Flu with a Flu Shot

While being sick is never pleasant, being sick with the flu can be especially miserable. One of the best ways to avoid catching the flu this flu season is getting a flu shot. This immunization can help your body fight off the flu virus to keep you feeling healthy. If you’re interested in getting a flu shot or have questions about treating cold or flu symptoms, please reach out to Lakeland Drug Company today! We look forward to helping you stay healthy and feel your best!