Is This Flu, or Just a Cold?

How to tell the difference between a flu or cold

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

Cold and flu season is approaching with the advent of colder weather and the winter months. How do you tell the difference between the two illnesses?

If you feel like you're coming down with something, you'll want to know whether you have a common cold, or flu, which can worsen into a more serious illness.

It's important to know the symptoms, especially if you're responsible for the care of a child or an elderly person.


Cold and flu are both common, communicable diseases, which mean they spread easily from person to person. If you share a space with someone with a cold or flu, watch out.

There are one billion different colds in the United States each year, according to the A.D.A.M Medical Encyclopedia. You will probably get more colds than any other type of sickness during your lifetime.

Flu is caused by an influenza virus. There are many different strains, or types of flu viruses, but there are usually two or three that are more common than others in any given year.

Flu has a season, spanning from October to May. Colds are not seasonal, but come on with winter or rainy seasons.

Homes, workplaces, and schools and day cares are breeding grounds for infection. Colds and flu spread through droplets that travel through the air or via bodily contact.

Say a sick coworker sneezes, or your child wipes his nose on his hand before grabbing yours; if they are in a contagious phase of their illness, you might end up with symptoms a few days later.

Colds are contagious for the first two to three days of symptoms, but not after the first week. Flu can be contagious five to seven days during symptoms, and a day or so before you actually start to experience symptoms – when you didn't know you had it.


The symptoms of cold and flu are actually quite different, despite the similarities in the common seasons and causes.

You start to experience flu symptoms between one and seven days after you come into contact with the virus. They hit suddenly.

The first symptom of flu is a fever that runs between 102 and 106 Fahrenheit. Children may experience more severe symptoms than adults, because they have less immunity to the virus.

After the onset of fever, you'll start to feel symptoms throughout your entire body. Your face gets flushed, you have headaches, and you're tired all over.

You might even feel nauseous and throw up. But as the illness progresses, the fever and pains evolve into a dry cough, runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat.

A cold is mostly restrained to your head. You'll probably have a stuffy and runny nose, scratchy throat, and sneezing.

A mild fever might accompany your head symptoms. It will be a few degrees lower than the flu fever. Other symptoms could include cough, low appetite, headache, and sore throat.

It's easy to see how the symptoms might be confusing. But flu is a harsher illness than cold, especially for children and the elderly.


There's little a doctor can do to help you treat a cold, nor can medicines make it go away faster. An age-old recommendation is to let the cold “run its course.”

Make sure to drink lots of fluids and get rest when you have a cold.

There are many brands of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines that promise to ease the symptoms of a cold. These can be given without a doctor's recommendation to older children and adults.

But the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia advises speaking to your doctor before given an over-the-counter drug to a younger child, even if it's labeled for pediatric use. They may not work, and could possibly have serious side effects.

Vitamin supplements like Vitamin C and zinc have been promoted as ways to fight against cold. These are most effective if you take them in advance of the cold, to prevent getting sick in the first place.

If you have a sick coworker, that's when you might want to start taking zinc. A regular regimen of vitamin C may make you less vulnerable to colds.

And of course, a dose of chicken soup can't hurt.

Treatment for a mild flu can go much the same way as treatment for a cold. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (pain and fever reducers, like Tylenol) and ibuprofen (brand names like Advil) can bring down your fever and aches.

Cough drops or cough medicines soothe a sore throat. And like a cold, plenty of fluids and rest are recommended.

But if you or a person in your care does not feel better after three or four days of coming down with the flu, you may want to see a doctor. A doctor may prescribe anti-viral drugs that fight the virus in your body.

Anti-virals will shorten your sickness by a day. The catch is you have to start taking them within two days of your first symptoms.

Flu is a mostly routine illness from which most people recover without major incident. But believe it or not, 36,000 people die from flu every year.

Flu can lead to pneumonia, or rarely, a brain infection, which can be deadly if untreated. Children under the age of two and people over the age of 65 are in a higher risk group for developing severe illness.

Flu can also be very dangerous during pregnancy, and for people with pre-existing heart, kidney, or lung conditions. Diabetes and immunosuppressed patients are also at risk.


Flu is a preventable illness. A yearly vaccine will significantly decrease your chances of getting the flu.

Flu shots are available at doctors offices, health clinics, and even pharmacies and grocery stores during flu season.

There's no vaccine for cold, although taking vitamin C regularly may boost your resistance.

The steps to avoid cold and flu are very similar. The main idea is to steer clear of lingering germs.

For starters, wash your hands frequently in case you've come into contact with someone who is sick. Avoid sharing food, containers, and utensils during the cold and flu season.

Prevent spreading the illness when you are sick by staying home. If you are in contact with people, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or upper sleeve.  

Review Date: 
October 14, 2012
Flu Common cold