How To Tell If It’s A Cold Or Flu

Here is some guidance to tell which one is which, so you can fight it off correctly — particularly if it is infectious.

The horrible feeling when you are ill for days or a week, when your body aches, your throat is hoarse, you cough and sneeze and you feel feverish, but you are not sure if it is a cold or flu…

Dr Cindy Weston at Texas A&M College of Nursing says that the common cold and flu have lots of similar symptoms, but there are some specific features to distinguish them.

Influenza and its symptoms

Flu is a viral infection spread by coughs and sneezes and it is seen all year round, but mostly common in the winter.

According to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the overall burden of influenza disease across all age groups in the U.S. during 2014-15 was 40 million flu illnesses, 19 million medical visits and 970,000 people were hospitalized.

There is a likelihood that the vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by 50%.

Dr Weston draws some lines which helps to distinguish the flu from a cold:


“The flu typically comes on quick and strong as opposed to a nagging cold.

You may be feeling fine during the morning but can feel horrible, with a fever and aches, in the afternoon.”

Dr Weston hints that the type of aches and pains are different between the common cold and the flu:

“Aches and pains are prevalent in both conditions, but with a cold, the aches are mild and generally associated with congestion.

The flu can present with deep muscle pains in your large muscles, including your legs and back.”

Influenza symptoms include:

  • High fever- Fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a sign to seek medical treatment for complications of acute respiratory infection.
  • Severe muscle aches.
  • Sinus and ear pressure.
  • Chest or nasal congestion.
  • Cough.
  • Runny nose.
  • Sore throat.
  • Diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.
  • Extreme fatigue and exhaustion.

In case of flu it is sensible to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

Treatment with anti-viral medications within 24 -48 hours can reduce the symptoms’ intensity and lower the chance of further problems.

Dr Weston said:

“Both the flu and cold can lead to further problems like pneumonia, bronchitis or sinusitis.

The flu is more likely to do so, but it’s best to treat the symptoms and stay well rested to lessen the chances of further problems.”

Common cold and its symptoms

Colds are viral infections and more common in the winter when everyone stays indoors where viruses can easily commute from one person to the next.

A cold is hard to get rid of as antibiotics have no effect against viral infections responsible for the common cold.

The best way to overcome a cold is to rest, drink lots of fluids and treat the symptoms with cold medicines, consume foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin C supplementation and zinc acetate lozenges.

Dr Weston said:

“The common cold is complicated to treat and can’t be cured, but rest and nutrition seem to be the best approach.

You can take medications to treat the symptoms and make yourself more comfortable.”

Common cold symptoms include:

  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny nose and sneezing.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Feeling of tiredness and mild fatigue.
  • Chills.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Headache.

In general, a cold goes away within a week or two but if the illness persists and the symptoms got worse it might be wise to seek medical care.

Cold image from Shutterstock