Cold vs Flu Symptoms: How to Tell the Difference

Winter means cold and flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control, adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year, and children even more. However, understanding how to recognize the difference between a cold and the flu can prevent you or your family from developing serious health complications, such as pneumonia.

Both the flu and the common cold are viral respiratory infections. The cold virus, known as rhinovirus, usually causes mild symptoms that come on gradually and can last anywhere from 48 hours to 14 days. Two weeks can feel like a big hit to your normal, healthy routine. However, a healthy adult usually recovers in about ten days. Flu symptoms arise quickly and can linger for up to two weeks.

Both rhinovirus and influenza (flu) are contagious. Washing your hands frequently can minimize the risk of transferring either virus from a surface -- such as a door handle or light switch -- to your nose, eyes or mouth. Make sure to use warm water when washing with soap for 15 to 20 seconds. 

As long as flu viruses are circulating, it is not too late to get vaccinatedHowever, influenza is such a serious health problem that doctors and public health officials also recommend vaccination for infants, seniors, people with compromised immune systems, and anyone who works or lives with children or the elderly. The flu vaccine plus good hygiene can reduce your flu risk by up to 60%. 

Here are five ways to distinguish flu symptoms from cold symptoms:


One of the most apparent differences between the flu and a cold is the presence of a fever. The flu is almost always accompanied by a fever, while colds are rarely accompanied by a fever. Moreover, if you do experience a fever with a cold, it is usually mild, while the flu can bring high fever and chills.

In addition to signifying a serious case of the flu, a high or lingering fever can be dangerous in itself. Complications from a high fever include dehydration, convulsions or seizures, loss of appetite, and mental confusion. A flu infection accompanied by a high fever may require medical care.

Body Aches

When the body fights a viral infection, such as the flu or a cold, it produces white blood cells to attack and eliminate the viral invaders. A side effect of white blood cells is inflammation.

You may have experienced an achy, swollen finger after a paper cut. This is the natural inflammation caused by your immune system while dealing with any bacteria that entered the cut and beginning the healing process for the tissue in the area.

The same thing occurs when you are infected with a virus, but on a much larger scale. Rather than experiencing inflammation and aches in a local area, you experience them throughout your body. 

Since colds are a much milder virus, you will likely experience no body aches or mild body aches. The flu, however, is typically characterized by much more painful muscle, body and joint aches. Fortunately, the same over-the-counter medications that can reduce fever can also reduce inflammation and relieve body aches. For severe body aches or body aches that do not respond to over-the-counter medications, you may want to visit an urgent care clinic.


The flu is frequently accompanied by a headache, while colds typically are not. Sometimes the headaches are produced by the fever or dehydration resulting from the fever. Headaches may also be produced by inflammation caused by the immune system fighting the virus. In any case, mild headaches can be treated with over-the-counter medication and fluids. Serious headaches may justify an examination at an urgent care clinic.


When you have the flu, you will likely experience severe fatigue that may last several days. Colds, on the other hand, usually cause mild fatigue. Once again, the fatigue is a result of your body using its energy to battle the viral infection. A serious virus, like the flu, taxes the body more than a mild virus, like a cold.

Chest Congestion

Although not always as reliable as the other indicators, chest congestion is usually a sign of the flu, whereas the cold is much more associated with congestion in the nose and throat. Serious chest congestion from the flu can lead to pneumonia, so you should seek medical care if the flu causes chest pain or difficulty breathing.

Recognizing the difference between a cold and the flu can help you seek the appropriate level of medical care to avoid serious complications. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment online or walk in to an Immediate Clinic near you for an exam, diagnosis and treatment plan. It’s also not too late to get the flu shot, which is as simple as walking in to see us between 8 am to 8 pm any day of the week.

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