December 12, 2023

During the colder months, both colds and the flu become much more prevalent. If you start feeling sick with a cough, fever, runny nose, or headache, you may not know what’s making you feel bad. It can be difficult to tell the difference between cold and flu, which is why we’ve put together this guide to help make it easier for you. Keep reading to learn more about the difference between cold and flu and how you can tell them apart.

What Is the Difference Between Cold and Flu?

pink and blue viruses of various shapes and sizes against a white background

Both a common cold and the flu are respiratory infections caused by viruses that can share a lot of the same symptoms. The key difference between cold and flu lies in the type of virus causing the infection. A cold can be caused by more than 200 different types of viruses, the most common of which are rhinoviruses. Flu, on the other hand, is caused by only a handful of strains of influenza viruses. Generally, the flu causes worse and more intense symptoms than the common cold. In some cases, the flu can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, bacterial infection, or hospitalization.

How Do I Tell the Difference Between Cold and Flu Symptoms?

You can often discern whether you have a cold or the flu by looking at your symptoms. While both cold and flu can cause many of the same symptoms, there are some key differences to watch out for. You may be able to tell the difference between cold and flu based on the following:

1. A cold won’t typically cause a high fever.

If you are running a high fever, you are likely sick with the flu. A cold may cause your temperature to run a little warmer, but it will rarely cause a substantial fever. When you catch the flu, you will likely experience a fever that comes on quickly, and it can last three to four days.

2. Body aches and chills accompany the flu.

Are you experiencing body aches, headaches, chills, or severe fatigue? If so, you likely have the flu. These symptoms are almost never associated with common colds but frequently come with the flu. A cold may make you feel run down, but not to the same degree as the flu and very rarely with body aches and chills.

3. A cold usually comes with sneezing, sore throat, and nasal congestion.

sick young woman blowing nose while wrapped in blanket on couch

If you have a scratchy throat, stuffy or runny nose, and you’re sneezing, you most likely have a cold. However, this is not a foolproof way to tell the difference between cold and flu, as the flu can also come with a sore throat and nasal congestion.

4. Chest congestion and discomfort are caused by the flu.

When you have a cold, your body will produce a lot of mucus, causing a wet, productive cough. This is not the case with the flu. The flu often causes a dry cough accompanied by tightness or pressure in the chest.

5. Flu symptoms have a sudden onset.

One way to tell the difference between cold and flu is looking at how quickly your symptoms develop. With the flu, symptoms tend to come on suddenly and without warning, while cold symptoms develop gradually.

Stay Healthy This Cold and Flu Season

Neither a cold nor the flu are fun to catch. Both can make you feel miserable and can make you miss out on work and family activities. If you want to avoid getting sick during this cold and flu season, follow these tips to stay healthy during flu season so you won’t need to spend your days sick in bed.