Is it the Flu or a Cold?

When you wake up sneezing, coughing, achy and feverish how do you know if it is a cold or the flu? It’s important to know the difference between the two because treatments are different. Also secondary health issues can be more serious with one versus the other. For the most part a cold is a milder respiratory illness then the flu. Length of symptoms also varies greatly from a cold to the flu.

Cold symptoms can begin with a sore throat that lasts a couple days. This is often followed by nasal symptoms that can be either runny or congestion. Nonproductive cough is not uncommon. Fever is rare in adults but can be low grade. Children are more likely to have a fever.

Flu symptoms are usually much more severe and come on very quickly. Symptoms can include sore throat, headache, cough and runny nose. Fever is usually high causing body and joint aches.

SYMPTOMS                                         COLD                                       FLU

Fever                                                   Seldom, mild                           Usual, 101-102

Headaches                                          Occasional                              Common

Body aches                                          Slight                                       Usual, often severe

Fatigue                                                            Sometimes                              Usual, up to 2weeks

Congestion                                          Usual                                       Sometimes

Sore throat                                          Common                                 Sometimes

Cough                                                  Mild                                         Moderate/ severe

Complications                                                 Sinus HA, Ear Infection           Bronchitis/Pneumonia


The best treatment for either is prevention. Good hand washing techniques is the most important prevention, along with avoiding touching your face and staying away from those who are visibly sick. For the flu getting an annual vaccine is important. Cold treatments include decongestants, pain/ fever relievers and cough meds. Flu treatments pain/ fever relievers, decongestants, cough meds and antiviral meds.

Cold symptoms can last for up to a week no matter what you do. The first 2-3 days are the worst and when you are the most contagious. Flu symptoms are much more severe and can last 10-14 days. A not uncommon complication of the flu is pneumonia, which can last for 3-4 weeks after the flu. This is much more common in the young, elderly or people with lung problems.

If you have a cold or the flu and symptoms worsen after a few days, it’s time to call the doctor. Other worrisome symptoms include persistent fever for more than 4 days, chest pain, persistent cough, ongoing sore throat or shortness of breath. Seek the advise of a physician if any of the above symptoms occur.