×
×
Woman blowing nose and holding mug

What’s the Difference between a Common Cold and the Flu?

Cold and Flu

Both a cold and the flu are respiratory illnesses that can make you feel lousy. Colds and the flu may have some similar symptoms, but they are not the same thing. Learning what each illness involves can help you understand the best treatment.

Let’s go over some cold and flu differences and similarities.

What Is a Cold?

A cold is an upper respiratory infection that causes symptoms such as a runny nose, coughing and a sore throat. Several different viruses cause a cold, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rhinovirus is the most common cause.

Colds are very contagious and are quickly passed on from one person to another. For example, the respiratory droplets from a cough can get suspended in the air and infect someone else. Even touching the same surface as someone infected with a cold can transmit the virus.

Colds are widespread during the winter and early spring months, but they can occur at any time of the year. Although a cold can make you feel miserable, it is usually not serious; most people recover in about a week.

Since colds develop due to a virus, antibiotics will not help. Common symptoms of a cold include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

What Is the Flu?

The flu is also a respiratory infection, but it is caused by different viruses than those that lead to a cold. The most common viruses that cause the flu are influenza A, B and C. The most active strain of the flu may vary each year.

Similar to a cold, the flu also occurs most often in the winter and spring, but can also develop other times of the year. It is contracted the same way as a cold, through contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person.

The flu is also not treated with antibiotics since it is caused by a virus. The amount of time it takes to get over the flu may vary, but it tends to last a bit longer than a cold.

Symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chills

Cold and Flu Similarities

The cold and flu have some similarities, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart. Many of the symptoms can be the same. For example, both illnesses may have upper respiratory symptoms, such as a sore throat and congestion.

Both illnesses are caused by viruses and are not treated with antibiotics. The infections are also transmitted the same way, by coming in contact with droplets from an infected person.

Cold and Flu Differences

There are also differences between the cold and the flu. Although it can vary, usually the flu makes you feel worse than a cold.

Flu symptoms tend to be more severe, especially specific symptoms. For instance, achiness and weakness may develop with a cold, but it is typically more intense with the flu. When a fever develops with a cold, it tends to be low-grade. With the flu, the fever may be higher.

The flu may also linger for longer than a cold, and some symptoms, such as fatigue, may take a couple of weeks to get past. The flu is also much more likely to lead to complications, such as pneumonia. Certain people are at an increased risk of flu complications, including the following people:

  • Young children
  • Adults over age 65
  • People with a chronic disease
  • People with a weakened immune system
  • Pregnant women

How to Treat Cold and Flu

Most treatment for a cold or the flu is aimed at reducing symptoms. Antiviral medications may sometimes be given to shorten the duration of the flu.

One of the best ways to treat a cold and the flu is by getting plenty of rest to allow your body to fight the infection. Getting enough rest helps your body produce antibodies that help destroy the virus. Although it is not always easy, if possible, try to cut back on work and get at least eight hours of sleep each night.

Additionally, there are other things you can do to decrease symptoms and feel more comfortable, including:

Staying Well-Hydrated

While drinking plenty of fluids will not shorten the duration of a cold or the flu, it may help thin mucus and make it easier to cough up.

Taking Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter pain reducers, such as acetaminophen, may help decrease aches and pains. It’s important to talk with your doctor before taking any drugs to make sure it is safe for you and will not interfere with any other medications you are prescribed.

Using Nasal Sprays and Decongestants

Nasal congestion is often a symptom of a cold. Although it is less common, it can also develop with the flu. Nasal sprays and oral decongestants can help decrease swelling in the nose and dry up mucus. Decongestants have side effects and may not be recommended for everyone.

Taking Cough Suppressants

Coughing can occur with both the flu and a cold. Cough medication, such as a cough suppressant, can help reduce coughing, which may also help you sleep better.

Cold and Flu Prevention

Although there are things you can do to keep your immune system healthy and try to prevent getting infected, there is no absolute way to prevent getting a cold or the flu. However, there are things that decrease your risk, including:

  • Getting a flu vaccine every year
  • Washing your hands frequently
  • Avoiding being around people who are infected with a cold or the flu
  • Getting plenty of sleep to keep your immune system strong