How to tell the difference between the cold and the flu

Young beauty caught a coldYou wake up one morning feeling lousy!  Your throat is sore, you are congested and coughing, you ache all over and even though you slept all night, you feel very tired and fatigued.  You’re pretty sure you’ve either picked up a nasty cold or you’ve got the flu, but don’t really know how to tell.  Although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference, there are some minor differences to help you understand which you may have.


Colds are caused by any one of thousands of viruses and are usually milder than the viruses that cause the flu.  If you have a cold, you will feel symptoms for 7-10 days and are contagious for the first three days of showing symptoms.

Some symptoms of the flu include a sore throat, which may be the first symptom to present itself.  Other symptoms will start showing up over the next few days.  You will feel congestion, which will lead to coughing and/or a runny nose.  Most people do not get a fever, although a very mildly elevated fever is sometimes present.  One indication of a cold is that the runny nose discharge starts off very watery and clear and will later turn thicker and darker in color.


The flu is also caused by any a virus, but in particular, one of the influenza viruses.  They are usually more severe than the symptoms seen in a person with the cold.

These symptoms include those that are present with the flu, but may also include nausea, muscle aches, fever, diarrhea and headache, but rarely include a sore throat.   The flu symptoms may also last 7-10 days, although the worst symptoms are usually over within 3 days.  A person with the flu may have a dry, hacking cough and usually has severe and profound fatigue.  These symptoms usually come on very quickly.

One concern regarding the flu is that it can lead to other health issues, such as pneumonia, a weakened heart or even death.

Summing it up:

The cold and the flu often do have similar symptoms, but here is a quick breakdown of the differences.

If you first have a sore throat and develop other symptoms within the first 48 hours or so, you probably have the cold. If you have a wet, productive cough, you probably have a cold.  If you are feeling “under the weather”, but can still function relatively well, you probably have a cold.

If you have sudden onset of symptoms that include fever, aches and fatigue, you may have the flu.  If your cough is dry and hacking, you may have the flu.  If you feel like you’ve “been hit by a truck”, you probably have the flu.

If you are unsure what you have, and especially if you already have other health issues, it’s best to visit a doctor.  Schedule that visit within the first 24 hours of the symptoms because then a doctor can test for the presence of the influenza virus.  He can also prescribe an anti-viral medication that can help lessen the length and severity of the virus.

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