How to: Tell the difference between a cold and the flu


Not knowing the symptoms of cold and flu can make you mistake one disease for another, which may lead to incorrect treatments but also complications that can cause serious health problems. While these two diseases have some common ground, they also have several different symptoms that can help you identify them.

Sick woman in bedThe cold is a viral infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract that can be caused by more than 200 viruses, with the rhinoviruses being the most common ones. The nose is affected the most often but there can be other affected areas such as the throat (pharyngitis), the eyes (conjunctivitis) and the sinuses (sinusitis). The cold usually resolves in 7-10 days with few exceptions that can last up to 3 weeks.

Influenza is an infectious disease caused by the influenza viruses, which are RNA viruses of the family Orthomyxoviridae. It is contagious, just like the common cold, but its symptoms are usually more severe. Nonetheless, uninformed individuals can mistake the flu with a severe cold. Influenza’s symptoms usually disappear within a week except for the cough and the feeling of tiredness which can last for weeks.

The first difference between these two diseases is the fact that the flu has a very sudden start compared to a cold. The symptoms usually appear 1 or 2 days after infection and include high fever – 38-40°C (100-104°F) -, extreme exhaustion, muscle aches and pains, prominent headaches and dry cough. The symptoms of a cold appear gradually and aggravate over a period of 1 o 3 days. The first signs of a cold are usually a scratchy feeling in the throat, tiredness and/or sneezing. Adults with a cold rarely have fever and when it appears it is low. A stuffy nose and a sore throat are also common symptoms of the cold and the cough, if present is milder than in the case of influenza.

flu vaccinationA great way to tell if you have the flu or a cold is to remember that fever, headaches, muscle aches and pains, exhaustion and chest discomfort are usual symptoms of the flu but not so often associated with the cold. Also, all of these symptoms are much more severe in the case of influenza. Children under 5 years that have the flu can experience vomiting and/or diarrhea.

It’s very important that you don’t ignore either of the above mentioned symptoms and use symptomatic treatment for the disease you have. People that have chronic medical conditions, low immunity and children should consult a doctor as influenza can lead to more serious complications such as respiratory failure and even death. The best way to prevent the flu is to take an annual influenza vaccination, which is highly recommended for the elderly, children, health care workers and people with chronic diseases.