Influenza (Flu) or Common Cold? Here’s How To Tell

4 minute read

By HealthVersed

Influenza and the common cold are both viral respiratory illnesses. Out of the two, the latter accounts for about one billion cases per year. Start a search online to learn more about the similarities and differences between the two.

Most cases of both the flu and the common cold are self-limiting. Self-limiting means that they resolve on their own. Unfortunately, both viral illnesses are responsible for many missed school and workdays, which speaks to their economic impact.

How Do You Know If You Have Flu or Cold Symptoms?

Because the flu and the common cold share so many symptoms, it can be very difficult to tell which one you have been unfortunate enough to contract. In general, the flu has more intense signs and symptoms when compared to the common cold.

Both the common cold and flu are viral respiratory illnesses that share similarities. The majority of cases of the common cold and flu resolve on their own without complications.

Symptoms common to both of these viral illnesses include:

Since both the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics have no real place in their treatment, except to treat bacterial complications of the disease. Furthermore, if antibiotics are used inappropriately, it increases the chances of future resistance to antibiotics, which is an ongoing crisis in health care. This is where the similarities between the common cold and flu end.

The symptom onset of the common cold is gradual, while the symptom onset of the flu is abrupt. While there are over 250 types of viruses that cause the common cold,  three types of viruses — influenza A, B, and C — cause the majority of cases. The common cold typically does not severely restrict your activity, which is not the case with flu, as many report not being able to even get out of bed. Lastly, fever is not typically a significant part of the symptom complex of the common cold, while it’s common to have a fever anywhere from 100.4° F to 104° F with the flu.

When to See a Doctor

Most individuals with the flu or the common cold won’t need to see a doctor.

If you suspect that you have the flu and are a member of a high-risk group, you should see a doctor. High-risk groups include those:

Antiviral medications prescribed within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms have the potential to shorten the duration of symptoms by one to two days. Additionally, they can potentially prevent or decrease complications.

The common cold with mild to moderate symptoms typically responds well to over-the-counter medications for symptomatic relief. However, you may want to visit your doctor for severe symptoms to make sure nothing more sinister is brewing.

Other reasons to see a doctor when you have the flu or common cold include:


Most individuals who are unlucky enough to contract the flu or the common cold will reclaim their health in a week or two. Although the flu is worse than the common cold, both have the potential to make you miserable.

The best prevention for the flu is a yearly vaccination, while the best prevention for the common cold is frequent hand washing. By taking the necessary steps to prevent illness, you can protect yourself and those that you care about from falling ill.

Learn More Today!

While both the flu and the common cold are viral respiratory illnesses, they differ significantly in their severity, onset, and treatment. The flu, caused by influenza viruses, is more severe and has a rapid onset, often accompanied by high fever and significant incapacitation. In contrast, the common cold, caused by a variety of viruses, typically presents with milder symptoms and a gradual onset.

While most cases of both illnesses are self-limiting and resolve without medical intervention, certain groups, such as the very young, elderly, pregnant, or those with chronic illnesses, should seek medical advice, especially in the case of the flu. Antiviral medications are effective for the flu if administered early, while over-the-counter remedies generally suffice for the common cold.

Prevention remains key, with yearly flu vaccinations and regular hand washing as the best strategies to avoid these illnesses. Understanding these differences is crucial in managing symptoms and reducing their impact on daily life and public health.