Differences Between Cold and Flu – Important Signs

The main difference between a cold and the flu is the severity of symptoms. Colds are usually milder and come on gradually, while the flu comes on suddenly and can cause more severe symptoms like high fever, severe body aches, and extreme fatigue.1 Colds rarely cause a fever above 101°F, while the flu often comes with a fever of 100°F or higher that can last 3-4 days.2 Colds typically cause a stuffy or runny nose and sore throat, while the flu often leads to a dry cough, chest discomfort, and severe headaches. It’s important to be able to distinguish between cold and flu symptoms, as the flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, especially in vulnerable populations.

Key Takeaways

  • Colds are usually milder and come on gradually, while the flu comes on suddenly with more severe symptoms.
  • Fever is uncommon with a cold but is a hallmark symptom of the flu, often reaching 100°F or higher.
  • Colds typically cause nasal congestion and a sore throat, while the flu often leads to a dry cough and chest discomfort.
  • It’s important to distinguish between cold and flu symptoms, as the flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia.
  • Practicing good hand hygiene and getting an annual flu vaccine can help prevent the spread of these viral illnesses.

Understanding the Difference

Colds and the flu are both caused by viruses, but they are different types of viruses.1 Colds are typically caused by rhinoviruses, while the flu is caused by influenza viruses. The onset of cold and flu symptoms also differs – cold symptoms usually develop gradually over a few days, while flu symptoms come on suddenly, often within 1-4 days of infection.1

Common Cold vs. Influenza

Fever is uncommon with a cold but is a hallmark symptom of the flu, often reaching 100°F or higher and lasting 3-4 days.1 Body aches are usually mild with a cold but are often severe with the flu.3 The flu also tends to cause more extreme fatigue and can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, while cold symptoms are generally milder.3

Fever and Body Aches

Fever is a common symptom of the flu, with most flu patients experiencing a fever of 100°F or higher that can last for 3-4 days.1 In contrast, fever is uncommon with a cold.1 Body aches are typically more severe with the flu than with a cold.3

Onset of Symptoms

Cold symptoms usually develop gradually over a few days, while flu symptoms come on suddenly, often within 1-4 days of infection.1 This rapid onset is a key distinguishing factor between the two illnesses.

Cold Symptoms Overview

Cold symptoms typically appear in stages. In the early stage (days 1-3), a tickle or soreness in the throat is often the first symptom, along with sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion.4 Around half of all people with colds report a tickly or sore throat as their first symptom.4

Stages of a Cold

In the active stage (days 4-7), symptoms typically worsen, with increased nasal discharge, body aches, headache, and fatigue.4 Some people develop a nagging cough that can last up to two months after a respiratory infection.4 In the late stage (days 8-10), symptoms begin to improve, but a lingering cough can persist for up to 2 months.

Nasal Congestion and Sore Throat

Nasal congestion and a sore throat are very common cold symptoms throughout the illness.4 Stuffy nose occurrence is inconsistent across both influenza and colds, sometimes present.2 Sore throat may sometimes take place in both types of illnesses, yet is more common in colds.2 While colds can make you feel miserable, they are generally milder than the flu and do not usually lead to serious complications.

cold symptoms

Flu Symptoms Overview

Flu symptoms come on suddenly and are typically more severe than cold symptoms.2 Fever is very common with the flu, often reaching 100°F or higher and lasting 3-4 days.2 The flu also often causes severe body and muscle aches, extreme fatigue, and weakness that can last 2-3 weeks.2 A dry, sometimes severe cough is also a hallmark symptom of the flu, along with chest discomfort and difficulty breathing.2 While colds usually don’t extend beyond the head and chest, the flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, especially in vulnerable populations like the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.2

Sudden Onset and Severity

Influenza symptoms typically have a sudden onset, while cold symptoms come on gradually.2 Influenza often presents with a high fever of 100°F and above lasting 3-4 days, compared to a low-grade or no fever with a cold.2 Muscle pain is common and severe with influenza, but mild or uncommon with a cold.2 Extreme exhaustion is an early and prominent symptom of influenza but is never a symptom of a cold.2 The flu causes chest discomfort commonly, but it is unusual or mild with a cold.2

Fatigue and Muscle Aches

Extreme fatigue is indicative of the flu, while a cold typically does not cause extreme exhaustion.2 Flu symptoms may include aches and pains, which are rare with a cold.2

Dry Cough and Chest Discomfort

A dry cough without mucus is a hallmark of influenza, while a wet phlegm cough is typical of a cold.2 The flu causes chest discomfort commonly, but it is unusual or mild with a cold.2

What is the difference between a cold and the flu?

Identifying the Illness

The key differences between colds and the flu come down to the severity and suddenness of symptoms. Colds typically develop gradually, with mild symptoms like nasal congestion, sneezing, and a sore throat.5 The flu, on the other hand, comes on suddenly with high fever, severe body aches, extreme fatigue, and a dry cough.1 While colds rarely cause fever above 101°F, the flu almost always includes a fever of 100°F or higher.1 Colds also tend to involve more nasal symptoms, while the flu is more likely to cause chest discomfort and shortness of breath.

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Symptom Comparison Chart

A side-by-side symptom comparison chart can help distinguish between cold and flu:

SymptomColdFlu
FeverRare or mild (below 101°F)Usual, high (100°F or higher)
HeadacheMildSevere
Body/Muscle AchesMildSevere
Fatigue/WeaknessMildSevere, can last 2-3 weeks
Sneezing, Stuffy NoseCommonUncommon
Sore ThroatCommonCan occur
CoughMild, hackingSevere, can be dry and painful
Chest DiscomfortMildCommon, can be severe

Symptoms in Children and Babies

Children and babies are more prone to getting colds than adults, with young children averaging 8-10 colds per year.6 Symptoms in infants and children are similar to adults, including runny nose, sneezing, fever, cough, and irritability. However, infants under 3 months with any fever should be evaluated by a doctor right away, as they are at higher risk for complications.6

Cold Symptoms in Infants

While colds are generally harmless in kids, monitoring for more severe symptoms is important, especially in young babies. Any signs of difficulty breathing, dehydration, or the cold symptoms getting worse rather than better are also reasons to seek immediate medical care for children.6

When to Seek Medical Attention

Most kids who have the flu get better in a few days to 2 weeks.7 However, infants under 3 months with any fever should be evaluated by a doctor right away, as they are at higher risk for complications.6 Washing hands often and covering the nose and mouth when sneezing can help prevent the common cold and flu.7

cold symptoms in children

It takes about 2 weeks after the flu vaccine for children to make antibodies that protect them from the flu.7 Tamiflu may help shorten the time your child is sick by 1-2 days if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset.7 It’s best for kids to get a flu vaccine every year before flu season starts to be prepared.7

Causes and Transmission

Colds and the flu are both caused by viruses, but different types. Colds are primarily caused by rhinoviruses,8 while influenza is caused by the influenza virus.8 These viruses spread through direct contact with infected droplets from coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. Both illnesses are highly contagious, with the incubation period (time between exposure and symptom onset) ranging from 12 hours to 3 days for colds, and 1-4 days for the flu.8 People with colds are most contagious in the first 3 days of illness, while flu patients can spread the virus both before and after symptoms appear.8 Proper hand hygiene is crucial to prevent transmission of these viral illnesses.

Viral Infections

Colds are primarily caused by rhinoviruses, which are the most common viral infections in humans.8 The influenza virus, on the other hand, is responsible for the flu and can cause mild to severe illness, and at times lead to death.8 These viruses spread easily through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces, making both colds and the flu highly contagious.

Contagiousness and Incubation Period

The incubation period, or the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms, can vary for colds and the flu. For colds, the incubation period typically ranges from 12 hours to 3 days,8 while for the flu, it is usually 1-4 days.8 People with colds are most contagious during the first 3 days of illness,8 while flu patients can spread the virus both before and after symptoms appear.8 Practicing good hand hygiene is crucial to prevent the transmission of these viral infections.

Prevention and Treatment

The best way to prevent colds and flu is through good hand hygiene – washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.4 Avoiding touching the face, eyes, nose, and mouth can also help stop the spread of viruses.4 Getting an annual flu vaccine is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age, as it can reduce flu risk by up to 60% and lessen symptom severity.9

Hand Hygiene and Vaccination

Practicing proper hand hygiene is crucial to preventing the transmission of colds and the flu. In addition, getting an annual flu vaccine is a highly effective way to reduce your risk of contracting the flu and experiencing severe symptoms.49

Home Remedies and Antiviral Medications

For treating cold and flu at home, over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve fever, aches, and pains.9 Staying hydrated, getting plenty of rest, and using over-the-counter cough/decongestant remedies can also provide relief.9 For the flu, antiviral medications like Tamiflu may be prescribed, but they work best when started within 48 hours of symptom onset.9

When to Seek Medical Care

Most colds and cases of the flu can be managed at home, but there are some warning signs that indicate the need for medical attention.3

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Severe Symptoms in Adults

Adults should seek care if they experience a persistent fever over 3 days, severe chest pain, severe headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, or persistent vomiting.3

Worrisome Signs in Children

For children, signs of a crisis include difficult or rapid breathing, bluish skin, failure to drink fluids, extreme irritability, and symptoms that suddenly worsen after initial improvement.3 Infants under 3 months with any fever should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.3

Seeking prompt medical care is especially important for vulnerable populations like the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions, as the flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia.3

Distinguishing COVID-19 Symptoms

With the emergence of COVID-19, it has become more challenging to distinguish between cold, flu, and coronavirus symptoms.10 All three can cause respiratory symptoms like cough, fever, and difficulty breathing. However, some key differences have emerged – COVID-19 is more likely to cause a persistent dry cough and loss of taste/smell,11 while the flu typically causes more severe body aches and a higher fever.12

Similarities and Differences

10 COVID-19 and the flu cause similar symptoms, with the diseases also causing no symptoms or mild to severe symptoms.11 Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and/or chills, cough, shortness of breath, tiredness, aches and pains, headaches, and sore throat.11 Upper respiratory symptoms like runny nose and sinus congestion are uncommon in COVID-19.10 COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people than the flu and can lead to different complications, such as blood clots, post-COVID conditions, and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.

Testing for COVID-19

The only way to definitively diagnose COVID-19 is through testing, either a rapid antigen test or a PCR test.10 Even vaccinated individuals can get breakthrough COVID-19 infections, so testing is recommended if cold/flu-like symptoms develop.12 Recognizing the similarities and differences in symptoms can help guide the decision to get tested for COVID-19.

Complications and Risks

While colds are generally harmless, the flu can lead to serious complications, especially in vulnerable groups.3 Colds generally do not lead to further complications, while the flu can result in severe issues such as pneumonia or bacterial infections.3 Flu-related complications cause thousands of hospitalizations and deaths annually.3

Pneumonia and Other Bacterial Infections

The most common complication of the flu is pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.3 Other potential complications include bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections. These bacterial infections can develop on top of the initial viral illness, further exacerbating the patient’s condition.

Vulnerable Populations

Those at highest risk for flu complications include the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes, or weakened immune systems.3 These groups are also more likely to develop bacterial infections on top of the viral illness.3 Prompt medical care is crucial for high-risk individuals experiencing flu symptoms, as antiviral medications and other treatments may be needed to prevent severe outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

When it comes to the differences between the common cold and the flu, there are a few key FAQs that often come up. Let’s dive into some of the most frequently asked questions about these [cold vs flu FAQs.]13

One of the most common questions is: Can the cold be caused by more than one virus? The answer is yes – the cold can actually be caused by nearly 250 different viruses.13 This is why colds are so prevalent and can recur throughout the year.

Another FAQ is: Are there any over-the-counter medications that should not be given to children? According to the FDA, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under age 4.13 Additionally, people under age 20 should not take aspirin due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.13

When it comes to natural remedies, many wonder: Can echinacea help prevent colds? Recent studies show that echinacea isn’t effective in preventing colds, but it may help reduce the duration of cold symptoms.13 Another natural option, zinc nasal sprays, can actually help reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms.13

One important question is: Can regular exercise impact cold recovery? Yes, studies show that regular exercise boosts the immune system, leading to milder symptoms and quicker recovery from colds.13

Finally, a common question is: Are antibiotics effective against colds? No, antibiotics do not work against the viruses that cause colds; they are only effective against bacterial infections that may result from cold complications.13

Key Differences Between Cold and FluColdFlu
Symptom OnsetGradualSudden14
FeverRare, mildCommon, high (100°F+)14
Body AchesMildSevere14
FatigueMildExtreme, can last 2-3 weeks14
CoughMild, more nasalSevere, dry14
ComplicationsRareCan lead to pneumonia, other serious issues14

These FAQs help highlight the key differences in causes, symptoms, and treatments between the common cold and the flu. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for managing [cold vs flu FAQs.] and seeking appropriate medical care when needed.

Conclusion

In summary, while colds and the flu share some similar respiratory symptoms, there are important distinctions between the two illnesses. Colds typically develop more gradually, with milder symptoms like nasal congestion, sneezing, and sore throat.3 The flu, on the other hand, comes on suddenly with high fever, severe body aches, extreme fatigue, and a dry cough.3 Knowing the difference can help guide the appropriate treatment approach and determine when to seek medical care, especially for vulnerable populations at risk of flu complications.

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Practicing good hand hygiene, getting an annual flu shot, and recognizing the warning signs of a more serious illness are all key to managing cold and flu season.3 While most people recover from colds and the flu within 2 weeks without medical treatment,3 seeking prompt care is crucial for high-risk individuals experiencing severe symptoms, as the flu can lead to serious complications like pneumonia.15

By understanding the

FAQ

What is the main difference between a cold and the flu?

The main difference between a cold and the flu is the severity of symptoms. Colds are usually milder and come on gradually, while the flu comes on suddenly and can cause more severe symptoms like high fever, severe body aches, and extreme fatigue.

What are the key symptoms that distinguish a cold from the flu?

Colds rarely cause a fever above 101°F, while the flu often comes with a fever of 100°F or higher that can last 3-4 days. Colds typically cause a stuffy or runny nose and sore throat, while the flu often leads to a dry cough, chest discomfort, and severe headaches.

How do the symptoms of a cold develop compared to the flu?

Cold symptoms usually develop gradually over a few days, while flu symptoms come on suddenly, often within 1-4 days of infection. The flu also tends to cause more extreme fatigue and can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, while cold symptoms are generally milder.

What are the typical stages of a cold?

Cold symptoms typically appear in stages: the early stage (days 1-3) involves a tickle or soreness in the throat, sneezing, and nasal congestion; the active stage (days 4-7) sees worsening symptoms like increased nasal discharge, body aches, headache, and fatigue; and the late stage (days 8-10) brings improvement, but a lingering cough can persist for up to 2 months.

What are the key symptoms of the flu?

Flu symptoms come on suddenly and are typically more severe than cold symptoms. Fever is very common with the flu, often reaching 100°F or higher and lasting 3-4 days. The flu also often causes severe body and muscle aches, extreme fatigue, and weakness that can last 2-3 weeks. A dry, sometimes severe cough is also a hallmark symptom of the flu, along with chest discomfort and difficulty breathing.

How can I tell if I have a cold or the flu?

The key differences come down to the severity and suddenness of symptoms. Colds develop gradually with mild symptoms like nasal congestion and sore throat, while the flu comes on suddenly with high fever, severe body aches, and extreme fatigue. A side-by-side symptom comparison can help distinguish between the two.

Are children and babies more prone to colds than adults?

Yes, children and babies are more prone to getting colds than adults, with young children averaging 8-10 colds per year. Symptoms in infants and children are similar to adults, but any signs of difficulty breathing, dehydration, or the cold symptoms getting worse rather than better are reasons to seek immediate medical care.

How do colds and the flu spread?

Colds and the flu are both caused by viruses that spread through direct contact with infected droplets from coughing, sneezing, or touching contaminated surfaces. Both illnesses are highly contagious, with the incubation period ranging from 12 hours to 3 days for colds, and 1-4 days for the flu.

How can I prevent colds and the flu?

The best ways to prevent colds and flu are through good hand hygiene, avoiding touching the face, and getting an annual flu vaccine. Over-the-counter medications can also help relieve symptoms, and antiviral medications like Tamiflu may be prescribed for the flu.

When should I seek medical care for a cold or the flu?

Adults should seek care for a persistent fever over 3 days, severe chest pain, severe headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, or persistent vomiting. For children, signs of a crisis include difficult or rapid breathing, bluish skin, failure to drink fluids, extreme irritability, and symptoms that suddenly worsen.

How can I distinguish COVID-19 symptoms from a cold or the flu?

COVID-19 is more likely to cause a persistent dry cough and loss of taste/smell, while the flu typically causes more severe body aches and a higher fever. The only way to definitively diagnose COVID-19 is through testing, either a rapid antigen test or a PCR test.

What are the potential complications of the flu?

The most common complication of the flu is pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. Other potential complications include bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections. Those at highest risk for flu complications include the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes, or weakened immune systems.

Source Links

  1. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/flu-cold-symptoms
  2. https://www.healthpartners.com/blog/cold-vs-flu-how-to-spot-the-symptoms/
  3. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/5161
  4. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12342-common-cold
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/cold-and-flu
  6. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/influenza/influenza-flu-in-children
  7. https://www.childrens.com/health-wellness/cold-vs-flu
  8. https://www.novanthealth.org/healthy-headlines/whats-the-difference-between-covid-19-flu-and-a-cold
  9. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/cold-vs-flu
  10. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/covid-19-cold-flu-and-allergies-differences/art-20503981
  11. https://intermountainhealthcare.org/blogs/whats-the-difference-between-a-cold-the-flu-and-coronavirus
  12. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2022/01/it-flu-covid-19-allergies-or-cold
  13. https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/top-10-questions-cold
  14. https://www.nfid.org/3-simple-questions-to-determine-whether-it-is-a-cold-or-the-flu/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7122289/