The Difference Between Cold Versus Flu Symptoms

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

When the weather changes and winter settles in, there are inevitably more sniffling noses and coughs around the workplace and school. These signs often make people wonder if they are witnessing a common cold, or a bout with the flu.

The Common Cold Versus Flu Symptoms

Physically, from the outside view, cold and flu symptoms are very similar. However, the cold and flu are caused by different types of viruses. The common cold is usually caused by variations of the rhinovirus or viruses that affect the upper respiratory tract. There are over 200 different types of viruses, which constantly mutate, that can cause the common cold, so it is near impossible to completely immunize and prevent the common cold. Symptoms include a runny or stuffy nose, fever, tiredness, coughs, headacheand body aches. Fortunately, for individuals who have a relatively healthy medical history and no other medical complications, the common cold should resolve itself within a week or so.

The flu, short for influenza, is commonly known as the "serious" version of the common cold in terms of symptoms. Incidentally, the symptoms are intensified, and the flu does not go away within a week like the common cold. It would be wise to see a doctor at this time, as he or she may prescribe antiviral medications and precautionary measures to prevent worsening of flu symptoms. If left untreated, influenza may worsen into serious, sometimes life threatening medical conditions, including but not limited to pneumonia, bronchitis, and severe respiratory tract infections. Individuals can also take seasonal vaccinations to prevent the flu.

Cold symptoms

Mild cases of:

  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Headache
  • Runny or stuffy nose

Flu symptoms

Intense cases of:

  • Fever and/or body chills
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dry cough
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Does not necessarily have runny or stuffy nose

Preventative Measures

Since the cold and the flu are similar in terms of transmission, the preventative measures are also similar. The golden rule is to stay away from infected individuals as well as places where they have been, or things they have touched. Physical steps that can be taken to avoid the flu or the cold include:

  • Regular hand washing with plain soap and water (to reduce transmission of viruses).
  • Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Disinfect surfaces that may have been in contact with infected individuals.
  • Adopt a healthy, well-balanced diet and lifestyle to ensure a strong immune system.
  • For influenza: be sure to receive the seasonal vaccination from your primary care doctor.

If you have the cold or the flu and want to help contain the virus and prevent infecting others around you, there are also steps that can be taken:

  • Wash hands regularly with plain soap and water.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if hand washing is unavailable.
  • Avoid sharing food, drinks or eating utensils.
  • Be sure to cover your cough or sneezes.
  • Immediately dispose of any used tissues properly.

Tips For A Speedy Recovery

Since the symptoms of the flu and the cold generally overlap, be sure to see a healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen or does not lessen after a week. If it is the flu, your doctor may be able to prescribe the necessary medication and take the needed steps to prevent the flu from worsening into other serious conditions.

If you have the common cold, there is no medication that can actually "cure" the symptoms, although it would not hurt to also see the doctor. Other tips you can use to help with speedy recovery include:

  • Ibuprofen: widely available in drug stores, this NSAID can help relieve mild pain and fever.
  • Decongestant: to help with congested nasal passages, mucus buildup in the respiratory tract and coughs. Common options include cough drops, vapor rubs or over the counter medication.
  • Vitamin C supplements: to help boost the immune system.
  • Zinc supplements: it may help reduce inflammation associated with the common cold.
  • Drink water: it is important at this time to stay hydrated and help flush out internal toxins
  • Eat balanced meals: although there may be minimal appetite, it is still recommended to eat nutritious foods to help the body replenish itself. Try some soothing chicken soup!
  • Sleep: one of the reasons that leads to a compromised immune system, susceptible to the common cold, is lack of sleep, so be sure to take this time to rest your body and allow it to heal.


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