How to Tell the Cold and the Flu Apart

Can you tell the cold and the flu apart?

Can you tell the cold and the flu apart?

How to Tell the Cold and the Flu Apart

Suffering from a cough, stuffy nose, and sore throat? One thing’s for sure—you’re sick, but what exactly do you have? Will it last only a few days, or is it something more serious? Here’s a useful guide that breaks down the differences between the flu and the common cold.


The cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract – namely, the nose and the throat. The average adult can expect to suffer from a few colds a year.1 Over 100 viruses can lead to the cold, but if you’re sick, you were probably infected by the highly contagious rhinovirus. This virus is prevalent all year long and circulates throughout the year, so you can catch a cold at any time.2


The flu is also a viral infection, but it affects the entire respiratory system, including the lungs. The flu is caused by the influenza virus, and it is usually prevalent between the Fall and the Spring. That’s why Winter is often called the “flu season.”3


Since the flu and the cold are both viral infections that affect the respiratory system, their symptoms can be similar. A fever, stuffy nose, a sore throat and a cough, for example, are symptoms typical of both flu and cold.4

Where the two diseases differ, however, is in the severity of the symptoms. Although a cold is no walk in the park, the flu is downright miserable! A cold can make you feel achy or feverish, but “these symptoms will be much less severe than those associated with the flu,” says E. Neil Shachter, MD..5 For example, flu fevers are typically higher, often reaching 39 to 40 degrees Celsius and lasts for 3-4 days, which is unheard of for anyone suffering from a common cold.6

Also, the flu can affect your entire body, not just your respiratory system. Fatigue, headaches and severe aches and pain are very common among flu sufferers. Some are even affected by muscle aches and shaking chills.7

Not only does the flu come with much more severe symptoms than the cold, it also lasts a lot longer. You can usually expect to be rid of your cold after a week, but a flu can leave you knocked out for up to three weeks. And that’s if it doesn’t worsen – a flu can lead to more severe illnesses, such as pneumonia or sinusitis.8Yikes!


You can ease your symptoms using over-the-counter medications like decongestants, pain relievers and fever reducers. Ask your Guardian, I.D.A. or The Medicine Shoppe® pharmacist for his/her recommendations! Also, make sure to minimize the risk of having the flu again by getting a flu shot.



The information in this article is presented strictly for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please see your health care provider if you have any questions about your condition, medication, or treatment.