Flu vs. Cold symptoms: Understanding the difference

Comparing cold vs flu symptoms is usually the best way to tell which ailment you may have. Although both are respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses.

A cold can cause a sore throat, cough, and runny or stuffy nose. Generally speaking, flu symptoms are similar but worse. In addition to those symptoms, the flu can cause fever, chills, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Influenza can also result in more serious health problems, such as pneumonia or bacterial infection.

How to distinguish a cold from the flu

When comparing cold vs flu symptoms, note these three key differences:

  • Onset: The flu comes on quickly, while a cold develops gradually, usually with a sore throat and runny nose.
  • Fever: A common cold rarely includes a fever of more than 101 F. However, flu symptoms usually include an initial fever. Cough, body, and muscle aches are also more common with the flu.
  • Timing: Flu season generally lasts from fall to spring of the following year.

Cold vs. flu symptoms chart

Here is an easy-to-understand chart explaining the difference between cold and flu symptoms:

flu symptoms vs cold

Image Source: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/coldflu.htm 

What is the common cold?

Like the flu, the common cold is a respiratory virus that usually lasts for about a week. Although uncomfortable, cold symptoms are generally not as severe as flu symptoms.

However, that’s not to say the common cold isn’t contagious. It’s easily spread to others, so while you are coughing and blowing your nose, it’s best to stay home. A little rest will do you good, and it will help aid in your recovery.

Common cold diagnosis

There is no test to diagnose a common cold. Typically, a diagnosis is made by ruling out other illnesses and evaluating symptoms. If you are unsure if you have a common cold, the flu, COVID-19, or RSV, a healthcare provider can help you get the appropriate testing and diagnosis. 

What is the flu?

The flu is a viral respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. It is a contagious virus that can cause mild or severe illness, including death. Common flu symptoms include: 

  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose

Flu diagnosis

It's sometimes impossible to tell if it’s the flu or another respiratory virus without a medical professional performing a diagnostic test within the first few days of illness. Your healthcare provider can prescribe antiviral medications to lessen the symptoms, but they are most effective when administered within two days of onset.

Who’s more at risk of getting the flu?

Regardless of age or preexisting health conditions, anyone can get the flu. However, some people are more at risk of not only getting the flu but also contracting serious conditions because of it:

●  People 65 and older

●  People with chronic medical conditions

●  Pregnant women

●  Young children

That’s why getting a flu shot before seasonal influenza begins is so important. It’s the best way to avoid the flu and to help protect others from getting it. We make getting your annual flu vaccine at any of our urgent care centers easy and affordable.

Cold and flu differences in children

Children experience similar symptoms as adults when they have a cold or flu. However, they are more likely to have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu, which is not as common in adults.  They may also have higher fevers.

If your child has a cold or the flu, it is important to monitor them for worsening symptoms, as they might be unable to communicate what they are feeling. These symptoms can include:

  • Blue lips
  • Chest pain
  • Dehydration
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever over 104 F
  • Lethargic
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Seizures

If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, they need immediate emergency medical attention.

Common cold and flu FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about cold vs. flu.

What are the stages of a cold?

The stages of a cold are the incubation period, the appearance of symptoms, remission, and recovery. Typically, it takes about seven to ten days to move through all of these phases. 

When is the best time to get a flu shot?

It is best to take the flu shot in September or October or before flu season begins. It takes about two weeks to build immunity. 

How long will a common cold last?

Cold symptoms can last between seven to ten days. A cough may linger for up to two weeks.

How can the common cold be prevented?

To help avoid these viral infections, follow these easy practices:

  • Get an annual flu shot
  • Wash your hands with soap and water, especially before mealtime
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Stay away from others who are sick
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue
  • Stay home if you are sick

Visit an urgent care center near you for cold or flu symptoms

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, our caring providers at our conveniently located urgent care centers can perform a rapid flu test to determine if you’ve got a case of the sniffles or something more serious. We can help offer treatment and advice to help you feel better faster.

To get started, find the center nearest you and walk in or save your spot online. We’ll get you on the road to recovery in no time.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm
  2. https://www.emedicinehealth.com/what_are_the_stages_of_a_cold/article_em.htm
  3. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/its-good-time-get-your-flu-vaccine