Not sure what’s causing your coughs and sneezes?
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell the achy symptoms of the flu from the sneezy symptoms of the cold—but other times, these two can mimic each other pretty closely. After all, they’re both upper respiratory tract infections, and the flu is sometimes known to cause “cold-like symptoms.”
Not sure what’s causing your coughs and sneezes? Here’s what you need to know about the common cold vs. the flu.
What are symptoms of the common cold?
The common cold generally has milder symptoms than the flu. However, symptoms—and severity of symptoms—can vary widely since the cold can be caused by over a hundred different viruses. (Learn more about what causes the common cold here.)
In general, here are the most common symptoms of the cold:
Runny or stuffy nose
These symptoms usually creep up slowly. Notably, the common cold does not typically cause a high fever (but it can), and it almost never causes body aches.
How is the flu different from the common cold?
Flu symptoms come on strong and fast, and they’re usually much more severe than cold symptoms. However, the influenza virus has various subtypes, strains, and lineages, and some can cause more severe symptoms than others. For example, influenza C causes mild respiratory symptoms, which could imitate symptoms of the common cold.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: If you’ve got body aches, headaches, fever, or chills, it’s most likely the flu—not the cold. Find out all the symptoms of the flu here.
Why is it important to know the difference?
The cold and flu are often treated similarly—with rest and plenty of fluids—so it might not seem obvious why it’s important to distinguish between the two. However, the flu can cause dangerous complications, so knowing the difference between the cold and flu could be life-saving.
The cold rarely leads to serious complications, but the flu could lead to life-threatening problems like pneumonia. This is what causes the flu to rack up so many hospitalizations and deaths. If you have the flu, it’s important to be vigilant to notice early signs of flu complications, like difficulty breathing, dizziness, or severe muscle pain or weakness.
Thankfully, both can be prevented with these tips:
Flu symptoms & complications. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on November 26, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm.)
Patient education: influenza symptoms and treatment (beyond the basics). Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2019. (Accessed on November 26, 2021 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/influenza-symptoms-and-treatment-beyond-the-basics.)
Patient education: the common cold in adults (beyond the basics). Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2019. (Accessed on November 26, 2021 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/the-common-cold-in-adults-beyond-the-basics.)