Cold vs. Flu: What’s the Difference?

Updated: Dec. 17, 2019

Streaming nose, sore throat, and pounding head? Is it just a cold or is it the flu? Our infographic tells you everything at a glance.

The common cold and flu can make you feel lousy, and both of the respiratory infections are caused by viruses. But what is the real difference between a cold and the flu? “As both are caused by respiratory viruses the symptoms can be similar and difficult to differentiate,” says Waleed Javaid, MD, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai in New York City. “In general, influenza has an abrupt onset and is accompanied by fever, head and body aches, chills, fatigue, and weakness. The common cold is more gradual, with no fever or very mild fever, occasional aches, some weakness, sneezing, stuffy nose and/or sore throat. Chest discomfort is rare in the common cold, but it occurs in influenza.”

Another difference? While colds are unpleasant, they rarely last long and aren’t usually serious; the flu is a different matter. During the 2018-2019 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the virus caused more than 17 million medical visits, at least 530,000 hospital visits, and between 36,000 and 61,000 deaths. “Though most people will recover from a flu infection, it can be more serious in patients who are considered high risk,” says Tina Ardon, MD, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. “Those include people 65 years or older, pregnant women, children, and infants younger than five years, people with chronic diseases such as lung disease including asthma or COPD, heart disease or those with suppressed immune systems such as people with cancer or receiving chemotherapy or other high-risk medications.”

Pinning down which one you have can mean better treatment—and getting better faster.  Most people will get over both a cold and the flu in less than two weeks without visiting the doctor.  If you’re at high risk of developing serious complications from the flu—such as anyone with heart disease or asthma—you should visit a doctor, who can give you flu antiviral drugs. (Avoid the virus in the first place with these tricks doctors use to avoid cold and flu.)

Not sure which one hit you? Thankfully, there are some key differences between cold vs. flu, from symptoms to severity to timing. Here’s how you can tell the difference between a cold and the flu.

This-Infographic-Shows-the-Difference-Between-Cold-and-FluTatiana Ayazo/Rd.comNow that you know the difference between cold vs. flu make sure to always avoid these foods that make cold and flu worse.