What is the difference between a common cold and the Flu?

What is the difference between cold and Flu?

Influenza (flu) and the common cold cause respiratory illness caused by viral infections. But they are caused by different groups of respiratory viruses.
1] Flu – the influenza class of viruses.

2] Cold – Several other viruses cause the common cold 

Rhinoviruses, parainfluenza, and seasonal coronaviruses cause common colds. Flu vs allergies and the common cold have symptoms that overlap. 

Based on symptoms alone, it can be difficult to tell between colds, flu, and allergies. Generally, the Flu is worse than the common cold. Symptoms with the Flu are typically more intense, and Flu symptoms usually begin more abruptly.

Common cold symptoms are not so severe; they are mild. Colds usually cause people to have a runny or stuffy nose. That may be different with people who have Flu. Colds typically do not lead to complications such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospital admissions.

Do I have the Flu? How do I know?

Are you down with a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue? Your respiratory symptoms might indicate Influenza.

Yet some people have added symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea, usually seen in children.

 Flu viruses infect people mostly during colder months of the year. That does not mean it cannot occur during the typical flu season. 

Other viruses can also cause similar respiratory symptoms, mimicking the Flu.

At home flu test

The Centers for Disease Control [CDC] explain at home, flu tests can be a quick, easy way to determine if you have the influenza virus. Remember, there are a lot of different strains of the flu virus, and the flu tests are usually for Influenza A/B strains.

At-home tests are similar to at-home COVID-19 tests.

At-home testing may help disease control and prevention, so if you are positive, you can take extra care, like hand washing and avoiding at-risk people like pregnant or elderly. Staying home can help prevent spread and help control and avoid CDC.

How it works:

The at-home flu tests typically involve a simple nasal swab, which the user then places into a testing solution. Then, you use a few drops of the test solutions in the kit. Your results are usually available within minutes.

How many types of flu tests are there

While several tests are available, the most common are “rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs). They detect flu viruses in respiratory specimens. Tests aim to detect parts of the virus (antigens).

Other flu tests, called rapid molecular assays, produce results in 15-20 minutes. They detect the genetic material of the flu virus and are more accurate than RIDTs.

Young medical scientist working in modern lab

What is the similarity between cold and flu?

The main similarity between a cold and the flu is their symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, and nasal congestion. Both viruses affect your respiratory illnesses and can cause mild to severe complications. 

How symptoms will affect you depends on your:

  • Age
  • Health history 
  • Medications

You may have more severe symptoms if you have a weakened immune system or are in a vulnerable group, like if you are elderly or have cancer.

The flu makes most people seem unwell, unlike the common cold. Flu symptoms include high fever, body aches, and extreme fatigue. See the table below.

How do you recover fast from the flu?

  • Take plenty of rest and regain your strength and health before returning to normal activities.
  • Eat light, nutritious meals like soup.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to compensate.
  • Tackle cold symptoms with pain relief over-counter medication, like paracetamol [acetaminophen], ibuprofen or aspirin if this is safe for you to take.
  • Antiviral drugs – some high-risk groups are offered medications, but you usually need to start this within 48 hours of symptoms. After 48 hours, it may not work as well or cause side effects. Young children may be given medication up to 36 hours after onset.

Signs your cold is getting better

When your cold improves, you’ll likely notice a decrease in the severity of your symptoms; for instance, your nasal congestion may clear up, and you’ll find breathing easier.

Your energy levels typically return to normal, and you do your normal activities. Usually, you will be coughing or sneezing less.

Symptoms like a sore throat or headache you had will begin to subside, giving signals that your body is fighting off the cold.

Common cold self-care

Try to maintain hygiene by regularly washing your hands.

Always put into your diary about getting your annual flu shots so you don’t forget. 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle, especially in the winter season:

  • A healthy diet
  • Get enough sleep
  • Have the right amount of vitamin D
  • Exercise regularly to boost your immune system.

Cold and flu medicine

  1. Decongestants: Help relieve nasal congestion and pressure.
  2. Antihistamines: Reduce sneezing, runny nose, and itchiness.
  3. Cough Suppressants: Alleviate the urge to cough.
  4. Pain Relievers: Ease aches and pains and reduce fever (e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen).
  5. Throat Lozenges: Soothe sore throat and cough.
  6. Nasal Sprays: Provide short-term relief for nasal congestion.
  7. Vapor Rubs: Help ease cough and congestion through inhalation.
  8. Flu Antiviral Drugs: Can reduce flu severity and duration if taken early.
  9. Rest and Hydration: Essential for recovery from cold and flu.
  10. Steam Inhalation: Can relieve congestion and sinus pressure.
Ill woman lying in bedroom with cold flu medicine pills

How long is a cold contagious?

A virus causes the common cold, and it is possible to spread the virus from person to person.

These are rough guidelines:

  1. Cold Contagious Period: Usually contagious from 1-2 days before symptoms start until symptoms have ended.
  2. Contagious Duration: Adults can be contagious for about 7-10 days.
  3. Highly Contagious Phase: The first 3-4 days of the cold are typically the most contagious.

Table comparing the symptoms of a Cold vs COVID-19 vs allergies vs flu.

This table will focus on common symptoms and their prevalence in each condition.

Shortness of BreathRareCommonRareSometimes
Aches and PainsSlightCommonRareCommon
Sore ThroatCommonSometimesRareSometimes
Runny or Stuffy NoseCommonSometimesCommonSometimes
Loss of Taste/SmellRareCommonRareRare
Itchy/Watery EyesRareRareCommonRare

This table is a general guide, and individual experiences may vary. It is always best to speak to a doctor for a full review.


Cold or flu, either of them is not desirable. Try your best to stick to a healthy lifestyle. Avoid close contact with those infected.

Who wants sickness to ravage them? If you develop any of the symptoms discussed at some point, present yourself to a doctor. Don’t let illness linger, especially the flu, as it can invite severe medical complications. Take care.

Disclaimer: The Content on this channel is for educational purposes. It’s not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor if you are worried or have symptoms.

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