Most people are under the impression that cold and flu fevers are one and the same. That is not so. There are similarities, but differences also exist and that is what makes them distinct from each other.

The guidelines described in this post will help you to differentiate between the two should you or your family member suffer from either.

Many a time, you get a stuffed or running nose accompanied by a headache, cough, and body ache – possibly a fever as well. And, you do not know whether you are suffering from a common cold or influenza (flu) fever. There are similarities, which make them appear the same, and differences that tell you how they are dissimilar.

It is necessary to know the facts and determine the diagnosis because though the common cold and flu can be harmless, both can give rise to complications, which can be serious – more so with the flu.

A patient of flu almost always suffers from a stuffed or running nose as in the common cold, and that is why defining the properties of both these ailments becomes necessary.

This is because you can then take the necessary precautions and the required treatment.

Similarities between Flu and Cold

  • Causing agent. Both are caused by viruses.
  • Incidence age-wise. In both, cold and flu, children are more affected than adults.
  • Cold and flu seasons. Both the cold and flu season prevail during the same period – the dark winter months. In the United States, this season begins in October and can last until May.
  • Symptoms. Both share some common symptoms such as a running or stuffed nose, cough, fever, headache, body ache, and pain in the throat. In both cases, the upper and sometimes the lower respiratory tracts are affected. Please note that all symptoms need not be necessarily present.
  • Cure. Both are viral ailments and therefore, there is no permanent cure for both. Treatment aims at giving symptomatic relief only.
  • Transmission. Cold and flu, both, spread in a similar fashion. There are three ways in which both these viral infections are transmitted.
    • By inhaling the droplets in the air containing the viruses and which have been sneezed or coughed out by the infected person
    • By direct contact with the infected person, such as shaking hands or kissing
    • And, via contact with commonly touched objects contaminated by the infected person. Such objects include doorknobs, telephone instruments, banknotes, etc.

Differences between Cold and Flu


Cold and flu-causing viruses

The cold and flu viruses, both belong to different families.

  • Cold is caused by more than 200 types of viruses, the most common being the rhinovirus.
  • Flu is caused by the RNA virus, which is of three types: Influenza virus type A, B, and C.

Contagious periods of both

  • Flu. The flu patient can be contagious one day before the symptoms appear and about three to seven days after that. At times, people with influenza who do not show any symptoms can also spread the flu virus. Kids, however, can be more contagious than adults and for a much longer time. They can be a source of infection even before the symptoms develop and for as long as two weeks after the infection has set in. Similarly, people with a weakened immune system, such as the elderly, and those with chronic or severe illnesses are contagious for a longer period – up to 10 days. The most infective days are the second and the third days after the infection has set in.
  • Cold. The common cold is contagious as long as the virus is present in the nasal discharge of the person. It is during the second day that the symptoms start appearing and it is during the second to the fourth day that the infected person is most contagious. This is because the viruses are present in more concentration during this period. However, variations do happen. The person may have symptoms on the fifth day or he may be totally asymptomatic, even though he is infected.

Differences in symptoms

Flu and cold share some common symptoms, the difference being in the severity of these symptoms. Even a severe cold is mild as compared to the severity of the mild flu symptoms. The differences in their symptoms will be better understood if shown in tabular form.

Fever Rare Usually high, 100F to 103F lasts for 3 to 5 days
Chills Uncommon Present in 60% of cases
Sneezing Common Usually absent
Clogged nose and ears Usually present with ear pain Uncommon
Headache Uncommon Present in 80% of patients
Cough A hacking cough producing mucus A dry cough without mucus
Body aches Slight body ache Moderate to severe
Fatigue Of mild nature Of moderate to severe nature lasting two to three weeks
Sore throat Usually present Usually absent
Sudden onset Symptoms develop gradually over a few days Symptoms develop suddenly in a few hours after exposure
Chest discomfort Mild in nature Common and of severe nature

Flu and cold complications

  • Cold complications include infection, which can spread to the middle ear (otitis media), sinuses (sinusitis), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), and the lungs.
  • Flu complications can be more serious and are seen to be fatal in 0.1 percent of the cases. They can include otitis media, sinusitis, infection of the pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), and the lungs (pneumonia and respiratory failure). However, the severity of the complications is higher. Chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions, asthma can become worse with the flu infection.

Preventing advice

  • Cold. You can prevent it by avoiding contact with an infected person and by avoiding touching the surfaces of the objects, he or she may have touched. Wash your hands frequently by rubbing them with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds.
  • Flu. Besides following the above measures for cold prevention, you must take the annual flu vaccine to prevent being infected.

Differences in treatments

The aim of treating both cold and flu is to give the patient relief from the symptoms of the illness. Being viral infections, antibiotics have no role to play in the cure.

However, antibiotics become necessary if and when there is a superadded bacterial infection and if the complications set in.

  • Treating Cold. Cold is treated for symptomatic relief with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs such as acetaminophen (fever medicine), decongestants, antihistamines, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) like Advil. These give relief from symptoms such as a headache, congestion, and body aches. Panadol, a paracetamol combination with decongestants is available as caplets. They are coated oral medicinal tablets, specially formulated to relieve the aches, pains, nasal congestion and fevers associated with both these viral infections.
  • Flu medications. The flu treatment also requires the use of the above OTC medicines for symptomatic relief. However, in addition, flu treatment also requires the use of anti-viral drugs. Anti-viral drugs shorten the duration of the illness and help prevent complications such as pneumonia. However, you need to take them within the first 48 hours of getting sick to have a successful impact.

All medications, OTC and those available on prescription, to treat cold and flu are available in tablet form for adults and in syrup form for children.

Cold and flu gel caps are also available for nighttime and daytime, which give quick relief from symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, nasal congestion, cough, and throat pain. Liquid forms are also available for children.

Both, the cold and flu require you to take rest for the duration of the illness and to drink plenty of fluids.

Home remedies for cold and flu

Natural home remedies abound on the web. Moreover, they are the same for both, cold and flu.

  • Stay warm
  • Hot drinks have been suggested for relief of flu and cold symptoms for ages.  They improve nasal congestion and provide relief from running nose, cough, sneezing, and sore throat.
  • An herbal tea containing added garlic, onions, ginger, and sage controls your symptoms and makes you feel better
  • Take rest for the duration of the illness
  • Clean your nose gently by blowing into a kerchief
  • Warm water gargles for a sore throat
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Have a generous portion of vegetables in your meals
  • Eat vitamin C containing fruits (citrus fruits) and foods (bell peppers)
  • Cold and flu guard nasal/oral sprays are available, which prevent you from catching the viral infection. It is not a medicine to fight symptoms. You spray it in your nose and the throat, which are the entry points of the viruses into your body. You use this if you have had exposure to the known sources (infected people) in your office, school, flights, and home.