Cold or Flu? How to Tell the Difference and Manage Symptoms

Did you know the difference between cold and flu symptoms? While you can find some similarities in their symptoms, but one major difference is that cold symptoms are milder and flu symptoms are severe. Both symptoms get better in 1 week or two.

Cold and flu are viral diseases caused by different viruses. Both cause almost similar symptoms and respiratory illnesses. Even their spread/transmission is through the mouth, eyes, and nose. As both are viral infections there is no effective treatment available. However, you can use over-the-counter medication to reduce the symptoms. People mostly think cold is like the flu due to their similarities. But it is not. Talk to a specialist for infectious diseases if you have any concerns.

Learn the actual difference between them in this article.

Difference between cold and flu


Both cold and flu are caused by viruses that affect the upper respiratory system. However, the viruses that cause cold and flu are different.

  • More than 200 different viruses can cause the common cold. The rhinovirus is the most common that affects people and causes sniffles and sneezes, which is highly contagious.
  • Whereas flu is caused by influenza A, B, and C viruses. Influenza A and B are the most common types, and their strain can change every year, which is why new flu vaccines develop every year.


Both have somewhat similar symptoms; however cold symptoms are usually milder and stay for 7 to 10 days (about 1 and a half weeks) or hardly for 14 days (about 2 weeks). Whereas flu symptoms are severe and last up to 1 to 2 weeks.

Cold symptoms

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Headaches
  • Mild tiredness
  • Body aches

Flu symptoms

  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Severe muscle pain or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Moderate to high fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea, especially in children
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Shivering/chills


  • For diagnosis, PCR-based tests are used for common colds, however, if not used for the public, they are reserved for hospital patients with pneumonia or severe respiratory tract infections. If your symptoms are severe, then the doctor orders X-rays to check for certain illnesses such as strep throat or pneumonia.
  • And to diagnose the flu, doctors use a rapid influenza diagnostic test, after asking about your symptoms. Swab samples from the nose or back of the throat are taken to test the influenza viral antigens. Test results come in less than 15 minutes but are not always accurate. Other tests viral culture, serology, rapid antigen testing, reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), immunofluorescence assays, and rapid molecular assays for better accuracy are performed in hospitals and laboratories.


As both are caused by viruses, antibiotics are useless. However, over-the-counter medication is useful to reduce the symptoms of the common cold and flu.

  • For the common cold, medication such as decongestants, acetaminophen, antihistamines, and NSAIDs are used to give you relief from congestion, aches, and other cold symptoms.
  • Whereas, for the flu decongestants, and pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are used to manage your symptoms. For flu treatment, some doctors also prescribe antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir, zanamivir, and peramivir to treat the flu because they are effective to shorten the time of flu and prevent its complications such as pneumonia. However, they are not effective if you start them later than 48 hours (about 2 days) after getting sick.

Drinking lots of fluids and lots of rest can help you recover faster.


Both flu and cold have similar prevention methods as they spread from a similar method. However, there are vaccines you need to take every year to prevent the flu, but there is no vaccine for the common cold.

Other than that, you can follow these tips to prevent these viral infections:

  • Washing your hands properly and thoroughly, especially when you go outside. Or you can use alcohol-based hand rub when handwashing is not possible.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, especially when you haven’t cleaned your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with others especially when they are sick.
  • Disinfect the extensively used surfaces to avoid viral transmission.
  • Cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze.
  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.

Common cold and flu are quite similar with some major differences. Both are caused by different viruses. But treatment and prevention are similar. Over-the-counter medications are used to treat the symptoms and avoid close contact and maintaining good hygiene help can help to prevent the flu and common cold. Want to learn more about the common cold or the flu or any other viral infection, Visit our team of Specialists for infectious diseases at Doral Health & Wellness on 1797 Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11212. Call us on +1-347-384-5690 to get a free consultation from our clinic Or