Cold vs Flu

When you wake in the morning feeling feverish or achy, you may wonder whether you’ve come down the cold or the flu.

Seasonal influenza and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses with many overlapping symptoms. These illnesses, however, are caused by different viruses and frequently vary in severity.

It can be difficult to determine whether you have the cold or the flu, but understanding your symptoms can help you find the right treatment. Remember, you can help prevent the spread of disease during cold and flu season and the COVID-19 pandemic. If you believe you may be sick, stay home. If you must go out in public, wear a facemask.

UPMC recommends that everyone eligible receive an annual flu shot to prevent serious illness.

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Do I Have the Cold?

The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat, parts of your body known as your upper respiratory tract. Colds are usually mild in nature and rarely result in serious disease or hospitalizations.

Still, they can cause plenty discomfort. Common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny, stuffy nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Muscle aches
  • Tiredness

Adults rarely get a fever from the common cold, but this condition can lead to fevers in children. When you have a cold, your nose may secrete watery mucus for a few days. Later, this secretion will become thicker and darker.

Colds typically go away on their own within about a week, and you are likely most contagious within the first few days of your symptoms. If you’re cold spans longer than one week, you should contact your primary care doctor.

Cold treatments:

Science has yet to develop a cure for the common cold, but many over-the-counter medications can help with congestion, sore throat, achiness, and other symptoms. You might reach for cough drops and lozenges or a mild pain reliever until your symptoms subside.

Most people with the common cold will feel better with time and rest. Get plenty of sleep and drink plenty of fluids. You may also try sipping warm liquids or using a humidifier to find some relief.

Do I Have the Flu?

Flu symptoms tend to be more severe than cold symptoms — and they may come on faster. In severe cases, the flu can lead to hospitalization and even death, particularly among young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Common flu symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Congestion and cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Chills

Your flu symptoms might gradually improve over two to five days but often span more than a week. You should call your doctor for the flu if:

  • Your symptoms last more than a week
  • You notice shortness of breath
  • Your fever or other symptoms return after being gone for a day or so
  • You’re experiencing severe vomiting
  • You feel pressure or pain in your chest or stomach
  • If you are at high risk of flu complications, such as those who are pregnant or have asthma

Treatment for the flu

Like the cold, the best way to treat this common ailment is with rest and fluids. This will allow your body to recover as it fights infection. Over-the-counter medicines may also help provide comfort.

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines. These drugs may prevent complications or help your symptoms clear up faster.

When it comes to the flu, the most effective way to prevent illness is by receiving your annual flu shot. Flu shots are safe, widely used, and critical to preventing the flu and severe flu symptoms.

Do I Have the Flu or a Cold?

The common cold and seasonal flu share many symptoms. Complicating matters is the fact that many of these symptoms also occur with COVID-19. It can be difficult to determine what you have based on symptoms alone. Doctors can perform a test to diagnose your specific condition.

Not sure whether you have the flu or a cold? Think about the symptoms you’re experiencing.


Common Cold The Flu
Fevers are rare Fevers are common
Gradual onset of symptoms Sudden onset
Stuffy nose, congestion, sneezing common Stuffy nose, congestion, sneezing sometimes occur
Vomiting and diarrhea unlikely Vomiting and diarrhea common
Sore throat is common Sore throat is rare
Chills are uncommon Chills are very common
Muscle aches sometimes occur Muscle aches are common


You can help keep your community healthy by staying home if you’re feeling ill. Contact your doctor if your symptoms are severe or persist.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.

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