Cold vs. Flu: How to Tell the Difference?

Winter can be a welcome respite after the scorching temperatures of summer, but it has its drawbacks, too. It often brings an increase in sickness. Cold and flu are among the most common winter ailments. When symptoms hit, you may wonder exactly what you’re suffering with and how to get relief. Here are a couple guidelines to help you differentiate between cold and flu.


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Common Cold

The common cold is caused by any of several hundred different viruses. It typically starts with a sore throat that goes away in a couple of days. The sore throat is followed by a runny nose and congestion, as well as cough on the fourth or fifth days. A fever is rare with colds.

Cold symptoms include watery nasal secretions for the first couple of days, which will become thicker and darker later. Expect dark mucus, but know that it doesn’t necessarily indicate a bacterial infection.
Cold symptoms last for about a week. You are generally contagious on the first three days of experiencing cold symptoms. You may be tempted to carry on with your usual commitments so you don’t fall behind, but it’s often better to stay home and rest. This can help hasten the healing process and also keep you from passing the cold virus to other people.

Cold symptoms that persist after a week could indicate bacterial infection, which needs to be treated by antibiotics. See a doctor for a diagnosis.

Cold symptoms can often mirror those of allergic rhinitis. Note that cold symptoms generally start quickly and begin to improve after a week. If your cold symptoms do not let up after seven days, consult a doctor. Lingering symptoms may indicate allergies.


The symptoms of influenza or flu usually develop more quickly and are more severe than cold symptoms. They include sore throat, headache, fever, muscle soreness, congestion, and cough. Some types of flu include episodes of vomiting and diarrhea. You should begin to see some improvement in flu symptoms from the second to the fifth day, but it is common to feel the effects of flu for a week or more.

Pneumonia is the common flu complication, especially for the elderly and those with lung problems. You might have pneumonia if you have a fever that won’t go away or if you experience shortness of breath.

Both cold and flu viruses enter the body through the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, or eyes. It is important to keep your hands clean and germ-free to prevent illness. Knowing the difference between cold and flu can help you monitor your symptoms and know when to seek medical treatment.