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Cold vs Flu: What’s the difference?
12/15/2020
Linda May-Zhang, PhD

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Runny nose, cough, fever, body aches. How do you know if you have a cold or flu? Here’s some information to help you better understand the differences.

Cold vs flu: What’s the difference?

While both are respiratory illnesses, the common cold and flu are caused by different viruses.

More than 200 different viruses are known to cause symptoms of the common cold. Approximately one third of all adult colds are caused by rhinoviruses, which also contribute to asthma flare-ups. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is an example of another common cold virus.

For flu, there are four types of influenza (flu) viruses: A, B, C, and D. Types A and B are the two major types responsible for seasonal flu outbreaks. Type C generally causes mild illness, while Type D primarily affects cattle, not humans.

Colds and flu have similar symptoms, so it can be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. However, flu symptoms are generally more intense than the common cold. Colds usually do not result in serious health problems. Despite having similar symptoms, the differences in onset, duration, frequency, and severity in symptoms may help you distinguish between a cold and flu.

Signs and symptoms

Cold

Flu

Onset of symptoms

Gradual

Abrupt

Headache

Sometimes

Common

Stuffy Nose

Common

Sometimes

Sore throat

Common

Sometimes

Cough

Mild to Moderate

Common; can be severe

Sneezing

Common

Sometimes

Fever

Rare

Common; higher 100-102°F is typical and lasts 3-4 days

Fatigue

Sometimes

Common; can last 2-3 weeks

Body aches

Mild

Common; can be severe

Chills

Uncommon

Sometimes

For all respiratory illnesses, the best prevention strategies include washing your hands often and avoiding contact with anyone who has cold or flu symptoms. In addition, you may consider getting the annual flu vaccine.

Colds and flu usually run their course. However, you may seek treatments to mitigate symptoms, such as decongestants, expectorants, anti-histamines, pain relievers or fever reducer medication. You may also consider taking dietary supplements to help support your immune system or reduce the duration of cold symptoms, including vitamin D, zinc or vitamin C.

However, it is important to call your doctor if you have severe symptoms such as persistent high fever (>3 days), painful swallowing, persistent coughing (>2-3 weeks) or persistent congestion and headaches (no improvement after 1 week). These symptoms may be signs of bacterial infections that need additional treatment. Signs for seeking emergency medical attention would include: severe chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion or persistent vomiting.

Contact your healthcare provider if you have any concerns or have underlying health conditions.

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