Cold vs Flu Symptom

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If you think you might have the flu, understanding and recognizing the difference between cold vs flu symptom can be critical. Both illnesses share many similar symptoms, such as sneezing, coughing, and congestion. You will know the difference between the flu and a bad allergy to something but it may be harder to distinguish between the cold versus the flu. However, there are some key differences to look out for when it comes to diagnosing which one you may have.

Know the Different Types of Cold & Flu Viruses

It is important to know that there are actually dozens of different types of cold and influenza viruses. Different viruses will cause different symptoms, and some can be more severe than others. Knowing which virus you may have can help you manage the possible complications of either a cold or the flu. Additionally, knowing the virus type may also play a role in your doctor’s decision to prescribe specific treatments or medicines.

Common Cold Viruses:

Common Flu Viruses:

Understand Common Cold & Flu Symptoms

One way to differentiate the common cold and flu is to consider the timing: cold symptoms tend to appear gradually over several days, while the onset of flu symptoms can take some people by surprise. Flu symptoms will also typically be more intense than cold symptoms and they tend to last much longer than that a cold. Whereas the common cold is more of an upper-respiratory illness (affecting your head and chest), the flu may have a greater effect on your whole body. People with flu will generally be much sicker than those with a cold. Though both the common cold and the flu have the potential to develop into more severe medical issues, the common cold is generally less severe with fewer complications. To help you recognize which illness you may have, it’s important to learn the differences between them.

Common cold symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Mild sore throat
  • Sneezing
  • General fatigue
  • Mild achiness

Flu symptoms:

  • fever over 100°F (38°C)
  • chills
  • severe body aches
  • frequent coughing
  • sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Mild sore throat
  • headache
  • achiness
  • extreme fatigue and lack of energy
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

Be Aware of When Symptoms Should Worsen

With cold symptoms, they will start mild and then peak within 3-5 days. Symptoms may become worse if a secondary infection develops like sinusitis or bronchitis. Flu symptoms can worsen suddenly and are often quite severe within 12-36 hours of starting.


Visit a doctor if your fever gets above 103°F (39°C). A common symptom of the flu is an extremely high fever, which can reach up to 104°F (40°C). With the cold, fevers are rare but if they do occur they will typically enter in between 101-102°F (38.3- 39°C). You may feel like you can’t stay warm. Keep in mind that bundling up when you are running a fever can increase your temperature.


Another distinguishing factor between the two is coughing. Colds will usually cause a mild cough and sore throat whereas with influenza, that coughing may become more severe—causing deep chest pain and an inability to control your cough.


Make sure that you are getting enough fluids while your body fights either illness. Dehydration is a common side effect of both the common cold and the flu, though it is more common when suffering from the flu viruses. If you begin to show signs of confusion or dizziness or extreme weakness, contact your doctor right away as you may need an IV to replenish the fluids that you have lost during your illness – especially if vomiting, diarrhea, and a lack of desire to eat or drink.

Monitoring Other Symptoms

In addition to monitoring coughing and fever levels, being aware of other progressions (or lack thereof) can be important in telling the difference. When it comes to the common cold, symptoms should begin to improve within a few days while when dealing with the flu they often worsen over time. As you begin to notice that your symptoms haven’t improved or that they are worsening, you may have reason to believe that what you’re dealing with isn’t just a cold but the flu. If this occurs then it is highly recommended that one seek medical care earlier than later as cases of influenza may require more aggressive treatments than colds.

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What treatments are there for a common cold or the flu?

There are over-the-counter medications that can help relieve cold and flu symptoms, such as pain relievers, decongestants, and cough suppressants. For more severe cases of the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines to shorten the duration of the illness. It is important to note that these treatments should not be used to diagnose or treat the flu. It is always best to consult your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of cold or flu.

Available Testing

There are three types of tests that can be used to diagnose influenza: a rapid antigen test, a viral culture, and a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The rapid antigen test is the most commonly used type of flu test. It involves collecting nasal or throat swabs and testing them in a lab. Results usually come back within a few hours. The other two tests may be used, but they take longer to provide results and are not as widely available. These tests can also help differentiate between the common cold and the flu.

Preventative Measures

The best way to avoid getting sick is to practice good hygiene and preventive measures such as washing your hands often and avoiding close contact with people who are already sick. It is also important to get the flu vaccine each year, as this can reduce your risk of contracting the virus. Finally, make sure that you’re getting enough rest and eating healthy foods that will boost your immune system and add an extra layer of protection, especially when these illnesses are in peak season.

In conclusion

The common cold and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses that can cause similar symptoms, making it difficult to tell them apart. However, there are a few key differences between them, such as fever severity, coughing intensity, dehydration risk, and treatment options. It is important to be aware of these distinctions in order to properly treat your illness and reduce your risk of transmission. If your symptoms worsen or persist for more than two weeks, it’s important to seek medical help. By doing so, you can get the right treatment for your illness and get back to feeling better. If you think you have the flu, you may also wonder how long the flu is contagious for. Check out our article on “How long is the flu contagious for.”

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