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What is the Difference Between Colds and the Flu?

As the winter months approach and more people spend time indoors, the chances for catching the flu or a cold from someone increases. By learning more about the symptoms of colds and the flu, as well as prevention tips, hopefully you and your family can have a healthier winter.

Cold & Flu Symptoms

It is not possible to tell the difference between a cold and the flu when you first become ill. Both the flu and a cold can be caused by a variety of different viruses. The symptoms of flu tend to become more severe than the symptoms of a cold. The table below shows the types of symptoms associated with each illness.


Cold Flu
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • And sometimes a sore throat, cough, sinus pain, or fever
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Fatigue

With regard to symptoms, persons with the flu tend to have higher fevers than persons with colds.

How Can I Tell if I Have a Cold or the Flu?

Physicians’ offices sometimes have rapid detection kits for the flu. There are no rapid detection kits for a cold. Colds and flu are both treated with rest, plenty of fluids and a pain and fever reliever. Antiviral medications are available for the flu that will decrease the time that people have symptoms (up to a 1-day reduction in symptoms).

What Should I do if I have a Cold or the Flu?

Most people just wait until they recover from either illness. The main issue with influenza is that it makes some individuals extremely ill. If this happens, the individual needs to seek medical care. As always, drink plenty of fluids and take medication to relieve pain and fever.

Cold & Flu Prevention

There is no way to make 100% sure that you and your family will not get either a cold or the flu this season other than isolating yourself and your family from all contacts with others. The best way to greatly reduce your chances of getting flu is for you and your family to get flu shots this season. You can probably reduce your chances of getting the flu or a cold this season by washing your hands after coming in contact with others and before eating, staying away from people who are coughing, and coughing and sneezing into your elbow instead of into your hand or into the air.

Find the Flu Shot in Your Area

For more information:

Go to the Cold and Flu health topic.