Is It a Cold or the Flu? Here Are the Differences

The common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms. Both are caused by viruses that enter the body through the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, or eyes. That means you can not only “catch” a cold but you can also “catch” the flu.

How can you tell whether it is the flu or a simple cold? What about the coronavirus? It is important to know the differences for effective treatment and managing symptoms, so let us take a closer look at each.

The Common Cold

Colds are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but they are usually harmless and run their course with no additional complications. A cold typically begins with a sore throat, followed by a runny nose, congestion, and cough.


The signs and symptoms of a cold generally come on gradually, last about a week, and can mimic hay fever or a sinus infection. Typical symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mild to moderate cough

Less common symptoms include mild chills or aches.

What can you do for a cold?

Antibiotics are ineffective against cold viruses, but there are some things you can do to help ease the discomfort of a cold and possibly even reduce the time you have it.

  • Rest
  • Hydrate
  • Use nasal drops or sprays to help with stuffiness
  • Gargle with saltwater
  • Humidify your home
  • Try home remedies like Vitamin C, Zinc, and elderberry, Echinacea, or beetroot juice supplements that may strengthen your immune system.

The Flu

We have been calling it the “flu” for so long that many people forget it is an abbreviation for “influenza.” Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. Most flu cases last from a few days to two weeks. However, some people may develop complications that range from moderate to life-threatening, especially if there are existing underlying conditions.


Signs and symptoms of the flu usually appear suddenly, about one to four days after exposure, and are more severe than those of a cold.

  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Fever lasting 3-4 days
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Weakness

Additional symptoms may occasionally appear, such as:

  • Diarrhea (more common in adults)
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Vomiting (more common in adults)

What can you do for the flu?

Most flu cases do not require medical care or antiviral drugs unless you are in a high-risk group or get very sick. Here are some things you can do if you have the flu:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Take antiviral medication only if your doctor prescribes them.
  • Limit contact with others as much as possible.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces.
  • If possible, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor right away. Additional infections require medical treatment.

  • Fever lasting more than three days. This can indicate a bacterial infection.
  • Painful swallowing beyond mild discomfort. This could indicate strep throat.
  • Pain around the eyes and face accompanied by thick nasal discharge. This could indicate a sinus infection.
  • Coughing that does not go away after two or three weeks. This can be an indication of bronchitis.

Symptoms Requiring Emergency Medical Care

Whether it is a cold or the flu, if you or someone you know are experiencing these symptoms, get emergency medical care immediately.

  • A chronic medical condition that deteriorates
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Not urinating (indicating dehydration)
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Seizures
  • Severe headache

Additional signs of an emergency if these symptoms are present in children include:

  • Any chest pain
  • Extreme distress or irritability
  • Failure to interact normally
  • Fever with a rash
  • Not drinking enough liquids (indicating dehydration)
  • Lethargy
  • Pale, blue, or gray tint to the skin
  • Rapid breathing
  • Severe muscle pain

If you feel anything is “off” with your child’s health, do not hesitate to seek medical help.


The flu can result in more serious complications, such as bacterial infections or pneumonia, and may require hospitalization for proper treatment. It can also aggravate any existing underlying condition.

Possible complications include:

  • Ear infection
  • Sinus infection
  • Pneumonia
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)


Did you know there are 219 virus species that can infect people? The first one was discovered in 1901, called the yellow fever virus, and even today, three to four new species are being discovered every year.

Coronavirus symptoms are similar to other flu strains, belonging to one of four types of influenza viruses. However, the flu is caused by influenza A and B viruses, while COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.

Differences Between the Flu and COVID-19

COVID-19 symptoms tend to appear two to 14 days after exposure versus one to four days with flu symptoms. Complications from COVID-19 can include blood clots and multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children. It also appears to be more contagious than other flu strains.

With COVID-19, additional symptoms may include:

  • Loss of smell
  • Loss of taste

The same complications and symptoms that require emergency medical treatment apply for COVID-19 as for other types of the flu.

The Importance of a Healthy Immune System

The best defense is always a strong offense, and that is no truer anywhere than with your health. Our bodies have a built-in immune system that can only do its job when we give it the right tools to work with.

Here are some things you can do to maintain a robust immune system that can fend off these viruses and other invaders.

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat health foods
  • Find ways to reduce stress
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Get enough sleep
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid sugar
  • Spend more time outdoors

While you may not be able to avoid ever getting sick, using common sense and doing what you can to stay healthy can go a long way to living a lifestyle you enjoy. As always, if you are in doubt or have any concerns, see your medical care provider.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.